A laboratory information management system (LIMS) consists of software with the ability to perform a wide variety of tasks. This technology can help a researcher develop the workflow for a new experiment or high-throughput assay; control the steps of the process as it runs; integrate a collection of laboratory platforms; and collect, store, and analyze the results. A LIMS can also use the results from one run to modify future runs. By automating laboratory workflows, organizations realize significant productivity and efficiency gains that also facilitate faster, more informed decisions.
In many cases, the task at hand dictates the needed features in a LIMS. For example, Borries Demeler, Ph.D., associate professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, developed the UltraScan analysis software, which works with data generated from an analytical ultracentrifuge to examine features of macromolecules. “The analysis is quite complex,” says Demeler. Moreover, grabbing the most information from these data depends on computer modeling that requires a supercomputer. So UltraScan helps users around the world deliver analytical-centrifuge data to a supercomputer for analysis, and that requires a LIMS.
Given the unique demands of working with data from analytical ultracentrifuges, Demeler and his colleagues developed their LIMS from scratch. Still, this example reveals information that applies to many other situations. For one thing, UltraScan must work easily, even for people with limited computer experience. “It works off of a web interface,” Demeler explains, “and a user submits a job through a regular web form to a supercomputer infrastructure.” He adds that this software must “manage diverse experiments and do everything from data storage and management to data analysis, visualization, and report generation—all while keeping all the information together in a well-organized fashion.” On top of all that, UltraScan—like other LIMS systems—helps scientists collaborate.
Through expansion of its integration and capabilities, a LIMS can bring people together from different laboratories, geographies, and businesses to collaborate and share information. “When planning a LIMS implementation, people usually intend to integrate all systems and all instruments, but that effort is often forgone once the LIMS is in use,” says Trish Meek, product strategist for life sciences at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA). Without that complete integration of systems and instruments, she adds, they don’t see as much return on investment as they could. “To get that benefit, they need to eliminate the manual steps in the process, which is why we are launching Thermo Scientific CONNECTS Suite for the paperless lab,” she says.
When a LIMS automates everything from process planning and control to data capture and archiving, a lab can go paperless. In addition to the convenience and efficiency, using a LIMS to eliminate paper can prove cost effective. “People usually don’t understand the cost of managing a paper-based system,” says Colin Thurston, product strategist for process industries at Thermo Fisher Scientific. “If paper is used for compliance, that requires a costly infrastructure to manage the paper and authenticate it.”
Making everything in a lab work together sounds easy enough, except for one thing: heterogeneity. “Platforms in labs come from different vendors with a whole host of data formats and ways and methods of doing things,” says Kim Shah, director of marketing and business development for informatics at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
So getting all those platforms working with the LIMS demands some way to integrate everything. “Thermo Scientific Integration Manager,” says Meek, “transforms data from any system into the LIMS and back.” Since there is no industry standard for data formats, Meek and her colleagues developed their own vendor-neutral XML standard to convert the data to make them compatible with the LIMS and to visualize the data from any instrument.
To really push collaboration between instruments within a lab and between enterprise systems outside the lab, scientists need vendor-neutral data management and visualization tools to manage the variety of data formats and processes. Only then can a wide range of systems provide laboratory information management for a variety of circumstances.
Despite the ongoing battle to make all instruments pump out standardized data formats, scientists keep raising the bar for LIMS applications. As Thurston points out, “We’re seeing a number of customers wanting to take lab operations to the field, say, for samples in the environmental space.” Doing that means connecting a LIMS to some mobile device, such as a smartphone or iPad. The mobile device could be used to collect data in the field, as Thurston notes, or to alert operators to problems on instruments running in a lab. For example, if the results from a device start running outside of specifications, a LIMS could push an alert message to the operator’s mobile device for instantaneous feedback.
At STARLIMS (Hollywood, FL), an Abbott Company, senior product manager Jay Ross also sees the interest in mobile connections. “People want to access their LIMS from anywhere,” he says. He adds that LIMS vendors are exploring the best ways to use mobile devices
For example, he says that customers want to use a LIMS on an iPad. “We’re going in that direction,” Ross says, “but the first assumption that you have to make is that what you have today won’t work well on iPads, because today’s systems are made for a full keyboard.” He adds, “You just can’t port apps to the mobile or tablet platforms.” Instead, developers must decide which of the hundreds or even thousands of features in some modern LIMS software make the most sense for development in mobile versions. No matter what developers select, one thing will not change: The LIMS software of tomorrow will integrate more systems and control them from more locations. That is inevitable.
For additional resources on Laboratory Information Management Systems, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit www.labmanager.com/LIMS