March 1, 2006 (Vol. 26, No. 5)
New Informatics Tools Impact a Range of Laboratory Applications
Paper documentation of data and processes, which has been integral to R&D labs for years continues to be a widely used tool for data capture and analysis, recording important inventions and archiving information.
However, companies in the business of developing new drugs are facing increasing pressure to decrease research costs, improve efficiency, and increase productivity. This is fueling the growth of an electronic environment in the pharmaceutical and biotech arenas.
A number of electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) and laboratory information management system (LIMS) tools that enable drug discovery efforts and change the way companies traditionally operate are now commercially available. Informatics tools streamline lab operations, manage workflow, document data flow from multiple sources, and help archive and retrieve information to enable data sharing across functions and global lab centers.
ELN can be defined as a tool that aggregates data from various sources, puts it in contextual relevance, and stores the data in a secure repository for retrieval, collaboration, and free-thinking.
The concept of ELN in lieu of paper notebooks started in the mid 1990s. These products were general and did not gain much traction in the marketplace, says Michael H. Elliott, CEO of Atrium Research (www.atriumresearch.com). The company provides market research, vendor analysis, and process optimization for ELNs and LIMS among their various services.
However, in 2002, the advent of ELNs for specific domains offered end-users tangible tools to do their work more effectively. ELNs started taking off, particularly in the discovery and medicinal chemistry area, to combat the high-throughput screening data deluge. Companies started to invest in tools to further manage this data, which re-energized the ELN market. This trend has accelerated in the last couple of years and touched all of the life sciences arena past genomics and proteomics, says Elliott.
The benefits of implementing ELN in a drug discovery environment are numerous. It enables better experiment design, provides better access to data, increases collaboration across groups, and most importantly, reduces duplication and redundancy in experiments.
ELNs have a bigger impact on efficiency and cost-savings in laboratories that have clear cut processes in place such as regulated GMP environments. ELNs can increase the productivity of these labs by as much as 40%, claims Elliott.
Discovery research processes are more complex as they involve multiple technologies spanning genetic analysis, metabolic pathway function studies, chemical synthesis, and proteomics. All these generate different types of data that have to be consolidated into a common repository.
The primary benefits include knowledge retention, the fostering of collaboration, and the protection of intellectual property. By using ELNs in highly automated drug discovery, ADME, and analytical areas, one can achieve at least a 1020 % increase in productivity, if not more, adds Elliott.
Table 1 lists vendors offering ELN products. Many of these are general and applicable in a range of industries while some are more specific to a particular market.
Beyond ELNs to LIMS
LIMS, in general, are process-workflow-oriented systems that use information technology and automation to manage lab operations. Comprehensive systems typically encompass process and workflow management, data collection, data processing, information storage, information sharing, and knowledge management.
The role of LIMS in drug discovery is to manage processes and track everything, essentially recording who does what, when, and where. In larger companies, there are layers of lab management and data generation, hence tracking is key and of utmost priority, says Roland Carel, Ph.D., head of informatics at 3rd Millennium (www.3rdmill.com)
Increased data, multi-faceted research, and technology improvements have resulted in a need for LIMS in drug discovery and early-stage development to provide global access and enterprise visibility for cross-functional groups to leverage work already done and increase operating efficiency, notes Ronald Kasner, senior director, strategic business development
at LabVantage Solutions (www.labvantage.com).
Several companies offer LIMS solutions that target specific components in the drug discovery area. These solutions fall into two broad categories: pre-packaged off- the-shelf systems and customizable systems that can be tweaked to meet the needs of the end-user. Table 2 provides a listing of some of the commercial LIMS offerings.
Ready-to-go vs. Customizable
Thermo Electron (www.thermo.com/ informatics) recently introduced Darwin LIMS, its latest commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) LIMS.
Darwin LIMS is designed and developed specifically for pharmaceutical R&D and manufacturing quality control. The system handles, but is not limited to, formulation development, stability studies, and dissolution testing, says Joe Peden, director of marketing and product management for Thermos informatics business.
Darwin tracks samples and production batches. Since it is based on COTS functionality, it can be deployed with the minimum of customization. This reduction in customization reduces implementation risk and total cost of ownership of the system.
Thermos LIMS portfolio also includes Watson LIMS for bioanalytical labs, Galileo LIMS for in vitro ADME research, and Nautilus LIMS for R&D, particularly in biotech. Watson streamlines bioanalysis of compounds for critical nonclinical studies that are conducted prior to human studies.
LabVantage Solutions offers three Sapphire solutions for pharma and biosciences that all operate on the same thin-client, enterprise platform that applies to R&D and QC labs. The companys Sapphire life science R&D solution includes experimental design and management functionality that allows end-users to design experiments using a graphic interface, execute tasks, and capture data, according to LabVantange.
The solution goes beyond just data management, according to a company spokesperson, because it also records metadata associated with the experiment, task, and sample.
According to LabVantage, the Sapphire Quality Management LIMS tracks samples and provides full traceability for raw materials testing and quality management, and, through automated workflows and specification checking, provides prompt feedback to correct any problem. The Sapphire BioBanking solution is aimed at repository or biospecimen management.
Pharmaceutical companies have thousands of clinical samples from patient registries or clinical trials that they use for drug discovery and personalized medicine. The BioBanking module stores, locates, and tracks biospecimens, along with their aliquots and derivatives, explains Kasner.
Moreover, it provides easy access to vital biospecimen data such as genomic, proteomic, and phenotypic information that can be utilized during the discovery process for biomarker research, phamacogenomics, and pharmacoproteomics studies.
LIMS Coupled to AIMS
3rd Millennium offers researchers the ARDAS system, a packaged solution for microarray research specifically addressing the lab management, data warehousing, and analysis aspects. It comprises a LIMS coupled to an Analysis Information Management System (AIMS). The product tracks, integrates, and manages all the data necessary for rigorous statistical analysis, claims Dr. Carel.
ARDAS also provides a guided analysis workflow, giving all researchers the ability to analyze their data. These analysis results are then stored in a central repository with the sample and experimental data, to support subsequent scientific queries, explains Dr. Carel.
GenoLogics (www.genologics.com) ProteusLIMS is targeted specifically at proteomics labs to enable them to manage research data, workflow, track samples, and integrate data from all types of instruments in an automated fashion.
ProteusLIMS is an off-the-shelf product for easy deployment but highly configurable, offering customers sufficient flexibility within the software to modify per their needs, says Michael Ball, CEO at GenoLogics. The company is in the process of developing a LIMS module for genomics applications with the goal of providing a data management platform for multiple omics disciplines.
Applied Biosystems (www. appliedbiosystem.com) main product in the LIMS area is SQL*LIMS v.5, which is based on an open platform web services application. It is applicable for the downstream QA/QC environment with sufficient functionality for upstream research operations as well, according to the firm. The company also provides SQL*QA and SQL*Stability software as add-on application modules.
The QA module adds on complete lots/batch tracking system for efficient production management. The Stability module enables management of shelf-life testing and attendant operations in pharmaceutical compound manufacturing, says David Hurt, solutions architect at Applied Biosystems.
The SQL*LIMS system is an 80% packaged out-of-the box solution, but is extendable and amenable to user customization, he adds.
Challenges to Implementation
A big challenge is incorporating sufficient flexibility into packaged or custom solutions for drug discovery to address the process complexity, ever-changing requirements, and multi-technology facet of this type of research.
Another major challenge was lack of process standardization across companies.
LIMS is an enterprise system, fundamentally dependent on how it can integrate into the core of what a companys business is. To be successful when implementing LIMS, it is not just about mapping out software and system requirements, but also concerns modifying existing business processes to obtain maximal value out of a LIMS system. Buy-in is needed at all levels for LIMS implementation to be truly successful, says Dr. Carel.
Associated hurdles for successful implementation of ELNs and LIMS are training people, allowing sufficient time for the systems to work, and overcoming a data-ownership attitude. Companies will need to carefully select, plan, and deploy the product and/or system that best meets their specific needs to obtain their full benefit.