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Technologies Helping To Drive Digital Transformation and Laboratory Efficiencies

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The digital transformation of laboratories is a rapidly evolving field, with advances in automation and digitization fundamentally changing the way labs are designed, built and run from the ground up. Several technologies are helping to drive this transformation, ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) to laboratory information management systems (LIMS).

Overall, the integration of these technologies is enabling labs to operate more efficiently, with increased speed, accuracy and flexibility. Labs will be able to leverage these advances to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and drive innovation in their respective fields. In this article, we highlight some of the key technologies fueling digital transformation and explore the impacts they are having on laboratory efficiencies.

Digitizing the laboratory

Modern lab managers are acutely aware of the benefits that digitization can bring to their operations. Firstly, digitization improves data management by providing a centralized platform for storing, accessing and analyzing data. This allows for efficient data sharing and collaboration among researchers, facilitating faster decision-making and accelerating scientific discovery. Additionally, digitization enhances laboratory efficiencies by automating manual tasks and streamlining workflows. It reduces human errors, increases productivity and frees up researchers' time to focus on more complex and critical tasks. Moreover, digitization enables real-time monitoring and analysis, providing valuable insights and enabling proactive decision-making. This leads to improved quality control, optimized resource utilization and reduced costs. Furthermore, digitization enhances compliance and traceability by maintaining comprehensive records and audit trails. It supports reproducibility and data integrity.

Overall, digitization offers laboratories the potential to improve their research capabilities, enhance collaboration, increase efficiency and accelerate scientific progress. Advances in digital technologies such as LIMS and electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are already helping to drive the digitization of laboratories and improve the accuracy and reproducibility of scientific research.

Improving data quality with LIMS


LIMS are comprehensive software systems designed to manage laboratory workflows, data and samples, offering significant advantages to laboratories. One key benefit of LIMS is their ability to streamline operations. LIMS provide a centralized platform for managing all aspects of laboratory activities, from sample collection and tracking to data analysis and reporting. By automating routine tasks such as sample registration, labeling and tracking, LIMS eliminate the need for manual data entry and reduce the chances of human errors. This automation leads to increased productivity as laboratory staff can focus on more critical tasks and scientific analysis.

Furthermore, LIMS play a crucial role in improving data quality within laboratories. By standardizing data collection methods and enforcing data integrity rules, LIMS ensure consistent and accurate data entry. Real-time access to data allows researchers to retrieve information quickly, facilitating decision-making and enabling timely responses to experimental outcomes. Moreover, LIMS offer features like data validation and data auditing, enabling better quality control and compliance with regulatory requirements.

The versatility of LIMS extends beyond data management. They support workflow automation, ensuring that laboratory processes follow predefined protocols and reducing the potential for human error. With customizable workflows, laboratories can define specific steps and procedures, resulting in standardized and efficient operations. LIMS can also aid in compliance with regulatory guidelines and industry standards by providing traceability and audit trails for samples, tests and processes.

Additionally, LIMS generate comprehensive reports, which are essential for documentation, analysis and sharing results. Researchers can easily retrieve and compile data for analysis, track experimental progress and generate reports that meet specific requirements. This functionality saves time and effort, streamlining the process of reporting findings to stakeholders or regulatory bodies.

“Labs produce and gather huge volumes of data,” says Dr. Becky Upton President of the Pistoia Alliance. “These datasets have the potential to give researchers much deeper insight into their research questions and to make new connections, but in order to gain insights and answers from this data, we need to make sure it is stored according to best practice FAIR principles (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) and make it more easily accessible through semantic enrichment,” she adds.

LIMS – and especially cloud-based LIMS – can help labs achieve this by providing a centralized repository for data and by making it easy to search and analyze data. Additionally, LIMS can help labs comply with regulations by tracking and recording data in a secure and auditable way.

Dr. Andrew Buchanan, principal scientist at AstraZeneca, underscores that the keys in driving digital transformation are “the ability to barcode and track individual molecules from sequence, format, batch expression/QC and the functional data that is generated with the asset. [These] are essential for how we deliver the work flows we operate. Without this, the error rate is high.”

Moving to the cloud


Cloud computing refers to the delivery of computing services over the internet, enabling remote access to data, software and resources. In the laboratory, cloud-based LIMS can revolutionize data management and analysis. By leveraging cloud computing, labs can store and analyze large datasets, collaborate with colleagues and access software and resources on-demand. Researchers can conveniently access data and software from anywhere with an internet connection, promoting remote collaboration and enhancing flexibility. Furthermore, cloud computing offers cost-saving advantages by reducing the need for traditional IT infrastructure, such as servers and storage devices. Instead of investing in expensive hardware and software, labs can utilize cloud computing services and pay for computing resources as needed. This cost-effective approach allows labs to allocate resources efficiently while leveraging the power and scalability of cloud-based solutions.

For example, Carnegie Mellon University, in conjunction with an industrial partner, recently built the world’s first university cloud lab. In this endeavor, Carnegie Mellon's cloud lab is spearheading groundbreaking efforts to harness the full potential of cloud computing. With a specific focus on data management, the lab is developing cutting-edge methodologies and tools that enable seamless storage, retrieval and analysis of vast datasets. This approach not only streamlines research processes but also facilitates collaboration by empowering researchers to access and collaborate on data from any location with internet connectivity.

By leveraging cloud computing infrastructure, the lab is optimizing resource allocation, enhancing computational capabilities, and driving efficiencies across various scientific and technological endeavors. Carnegie Mellon's researchers plan to use the digital space to pave the way for advancements in fields ranging from AI and data analytics to high-performance computing and Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

Optimizing experimental design with AI


Over the years, AI has undergone significant evolution, transforming the way scientists approach research and experimentation. With its ability to learn from data, recognize patterns and make informed decisions, AI has become a valuable tool in scientific endeavors. It has the potential to revolutionize various aspects of scientific research and has already found applications in drug discovery and diagnostics.

One area where AI excels is in optimizing experimental design. By simulating different scenarios and predicting outcomes, AI can assist researchers in identifying the most promising avenues of research. This helps in reducing the time and cost associated with experimental design, enabling scientists to focus their efforts on areas with higher potential for success. For example, researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard are using AI to design experiments to solve a gene therapy problem. The Broad Institute's AI screening technology, Fit4Function, was 90% successful at finding viral vectors that don’t cause disease but can deliver potentially life-changing gene therapies to specific cells in the body.

In drug discovery, AI is being utilized to accelerate the identification and development of new therapeutic compounds. Machine learning (ML) algorithms can analyze vast amounts of data, such as chemical structures and biological properties, to identify patterns and predict the efficacy of potential drug candidates. This enables researchers to prioritize the most promising compounds for further investigation, saving time and resources in the drug development process.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) is a crucial component of AI and ML. NLP enables machines to understand and contextualize human language, opening up new possibilities for scientific research. “In the future, NLP-driven AI and ML will augment human researchers in the lab, enabling them to uncover new relationships between data and automate large analyses to accelerate research and increase the success of drug development,” explains Dr. Upton.

While automation tools and machine learning algorithms are powerful, Dr. Buchanan notes that they are not intelligent; “For me the intelligence comes from human insight and the ability to ask the right question. Once the question is agreed, then these tools come into play and hopefully enable new more powerful insights and discoveries.” By combining human expertise with AI capabilities, scientists can leverage the full potential of AI in advancing scientific knowledge and innovation.

Other technologies driving the lab of the future

Robotics: Automated systems in the lab perform repetitive tasks, improving precision and freeing up researchers' time. They offer advantages like increased accuracy, reproducibility and the ability to handle hazardous materials or sterile conditions.

Internet of Things (IoT): IoT connects devices and sensors, enabling real-time data collection and analysis. It optimizes lab operations, improves quality control, automates routine tasks and provides critical insights into experiments and processes through data on environmental factors.

Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR): VR immerses users in simulated environments using head-mounted displays and interactive devices. AR overlays digital information onto the real world through mobile devices or smart glasses. Both VR and AR enhance data visualization, accelerate discovery and improve efficiency by providing immersive and interactive experiences for researchers.


Integrating technologies in the laboratory of the future

The adoption of advanced technologies in the lab of the future is not without its challenges. Labs often face several barriers when considering the implementation of these solutions. One significant barrier is the initial cost associated with acquiring and implementing new technologies. Advanced systems such as LIMS, robotics, IoT devices and AI software may require substantial investments in infrastructure, equipment and training. Labs must carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of adopting these technologies and ensure that they align with their budget and long-term goals. Another challenge is the compatibility and integration of new technologies with existing systems and workflows. Labs may already have established processes and legacy systems in place, making it difficult to seamlessly integrate new technologies. Ensuring compatibility, data interoperability and a smooth transition from old to new systems requires careful planning and coordination.

Additionally, labs must address concerns regarding data privacy, security and regulatory compliance. As technologies like cloud computing and IoT involve the collection, storage and transmission of sensitive data, labs must ensure robust cybersecurity measures and adhere to regulatory requirements to protect the integrity and confidentiality of their data. Furthermore, the adoption of advanced technologies often requires a cultural shift and changes in the mindset of lab personnel. Researchers and staff may need to acquire new skills and adapt to new ways of working. Training and education programs must be implemented to familiarize lab members with the new technologies and build their confidence in utilizing them effectively. Collaboration and knowledge sharing among labs can also be a challenge. Labs working in isolation may struggle to access shared resources, collaborate on projects, or exchange best practices. Overcoming these barriers requires establishing networks, partnerships and platforms that facilitate communication, collaboration and the sharing of resources and knowledge.

Dr. Buchanan recommends having an expert team of automation engineers and data scientists to implement these technologies that “should integrate well with experimental colleagues, scripting existing protocols, suggesting modifications more suited to automation. These protocols need to be established, validated and maintained.”

It is interesting to note that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted workflows in labs and accelerated the adoption of digitization in scientific research. With physical distancing measures and restricted access to lab facilities, researchers had to find alternative ways to continue their work and maintain productivity. This led to a greater reliance on digital tools and technologies. One key aspect of digitization that became crucial during the pandemic was remote access to data and software. Labs quickly embraced cloud-based solutions to enable researchers to access their data and analysis tools remotely, ensuring that research projects could continue even when physical access to the lab was limited. Furthermore, labs increasingly adopted LIMS to streamline data collection, storage and analysis. Digital solutions provided centralized repositories for data, improved data integrity and enabled efficient collaboration across teams, even when physically dispersed.

These experiences will likely have a lasting impact, with labs continuing to leverage digital technologies to enhance efficiency, collaboration and adaptability in the post-pandemic era.

Dr. Upton highlights the impact of the pandemic on labs, which accelerated the field of automation and robotics, and notes that we can expect even more in the next 12 months; “The COVID-19 pandemic encouraged many labs to explore the use of automation, robotics and VR and AR. Huge benefits are to be reaped from standardizing and connecting up laboratory data, making research more efficient and less costly, while the rise in automated labs that can be operated 24 hours a day will ultimately lead to significant productivity gains. Over the next 12 months we expect to see even greater levels of automation and labs emerging that are completely driven by AI-powered robotics.”  OpenAI’s ChatGPT could be a game-changer, says Upton, but “with any new technology, from the outset it’s important to take the time to understand the potential risks and implications of its use.”

Lab Monitoring-as-a-Service

Laboratory management challenges such as asset loss, manual task errors and management of too many systems can lead to ongoing costs and further issues. Watch this webinar to explore how to better maintain your equipment and environment, best practices for lab monitoring and how to implement new technology into your lab.

Watch Webinar

Transforming the laboratory for the better

LIMS, robotics, IoT, AI, cloud computing and VR/AR are powerful tools for labs looking to optimize their operations, improve their data quality and streamline their workflows, making them critical technologies driving digital transformation in laboratories.

By optimizing experimental design, providing real-time data and analytics, automating routine tasks, reducing errors and freeing up researchers’ time, these technologies can significantly improve laboratory efficiencies, ultimately accelerating scientific discovery and innovation.

On the lab of the future, Dr. Upton insists that “technology has the potential to transform the laboratory for the better, but only if our industry is prepared to invest in the people and processes that must accompany it.