Laboratory information management systems (LIMSs) are software packages that connect instruments, other software and sample management to human operators and other data systems, including electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs).
Despite their independent developments for different tasks, distinctions between ELNs and LIMSs are not obvious, notes John McCarthy, VP of product management at Accelrys (San Diego, CA). ELNs occupy a supervisory position—a larger lab data management platform—that accesses the activities of LIMSs.
LIMSs tend to be application- or workflow-specific, which results in different products for chemistry, biology, quality assurance, and related protocols. Notebooks handle a wider range of data, and present them in forms that enable collaboration.
Bruce Pharr, VP for products and marketing at GenoLogics (Victoria, BC), explains the crucial difference. Laboratories are built around two key assets: workers and instruments. “The ELN is for the scientist; the LIMS is for the instrument,” he explains. The control panel for instrumentation serves as the LIMS user interface, whereas the ELN can be viewed as the control panel for the entire laboratory. The LIMS works around a structured data set, tracking samples from the time they enter a lab through the numerical results. ELNs, as replacements for paper notebooks, handle unstructured data as well, such as photographs, spectra and written notes.
“In terms of that hierarchy, a lab might use a LIMS for a pK study, to manage samples and crunch data, but would use an electronic notebook to share these analyses across a number of experiments, among groups that might have different LIMSs,” Mr. Mc- Carthy explains. “Notebooks handle data originating from different labs.” They allow, for example, a medicinal chemistry lab to access analytical or biology functions that have their own LIMS. “Electronic notebooks cut across these workplace silos.”
Coalescing around standards
Nevertheless, the two products are coalescing or converging for some operations such as sample preparation and identification. “If you’re in a lab notebook, you don’t want to have to switch to a LIMS to obtain a sample ID,” Mr. McCarthy says.
Data standards have become a huge focus area for LIMS developers. Standards are needed so that data repositories can communicate, for example, so a LIMS designed for one task can read data from a different LIMS.
Accelrys is working with three large pharmaceutical companies on standard LIMS interfaces based on BatchML (batch markup language) and B2MML (business-to-manufacturing markup language), extensions of XML (extensible markup language). XML is a way to encode documents for machine readability. These capabilities will allow new LIMS deployments to read data directly from legacy LIMSs, without the need to rekey data or transfer it to a word processing document.
In the past, LIMS purchase decisions were made at the laboratory level. Increasingly, companies select these products on an organization-wide basis. “There’s a pricing benefit, no doubt, but standardization—not having to rekey data—is the driver,” Mr. McCarthy tells Lab Manager Magazine. LIMS interoperability may also be achieved through the ELN’s supervisory role, as mentioned, by applying an appropriate markup language.
Who uses them?
LIMSs were originally developed for analytical labs, which is where most are still used. According to Labs on LIMS 2009: A Worldwide Survey of LIMS Users, a study by Strategic Decisions International, the LIMS market is valued at $400 million per year. Main purchasers include materials analysis and testing (43% of users), the environmental industry (26%), life sciences (17%), “general focus” (10%), and clinical research and diagnostics (3%). Among these, chemicals, oil and gas and food/beverage are significant purchasers. Three fourths of usage occurs in regulated industries.
LIMSs fit well with workflows that involve automation and require high reproducibility. GenoLogics’ specialty, for example, is LIMSs for next-generation genomics sequencing. This market is driven by the adoption of next-generation sequencers, which numbered 200 in 2007. Today more than 1,900 such instruments have been deployed around the world.
GenoLogics has been receiving requests from labs requesting products that work out of the box and do not need to be specially configured. “These users don’t want custom implementations,” says Mr. Pharr.
Toward this end, the company has been working since 2007 with Illumina (San Diego, CA), which designs and markets gene sequencing equipment, on LIMSs for next-generation genomics. These LIMSs are preconfigured around sample preparation and sequencing, which are vital operations for Illumina’s instrument platform.
Despite this trend, a LIMS may not make sense for many “low event” labs, many of which are comfortable inputting data manually. “Their state of the art might be Excel spreadsheets, opensource software, or home-brewed applications,” Mr. Pharr explains.
Angelo DePalma holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and has worked in the pharmaceutical industry. You can reach him at angelo@ adepalma.com.
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