It takes a data system to stay in charge
The days of dealing with chromatography data by hand, or even with systems dedicated to single instruments, disappeared long ago (or at least they should have). Every lab that uses these separatory techniques needs a chromatography data system (CDS), which enables scientists to run various chromatography platforms, capture and analyze the results, and produce a report. Doing all that, without a degree in computer science or instrumentation, demands that a CDS be easy to learn and use.
At UK-based Sterling Pharma Solutions, scientists use high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), ultra-HPLC, ion chromatography, and more. In fact, this lab connects dozens of chromatographs to one CDS. As explained by Brian Alliston, data integrity expert and CDS specialist at Sterling Labs, “We analyze raw materials to final products, and that involves processing samples, validation, and method development.” This work includes about 8,000 chromatography injections per month.
The systems come from different vendors, including Agilent (Santa Clara, CA) and Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA). But an advanced CDS can handle all that. “One big thing,” Alliston says, “is that we can get all of our chromatography data on one open system.”
Today’s researchers have a range of CDS options, including Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Chromeleon, Agilent’s OpenLAB, and numerous others.
We live in a world of user interfaces, from ATMs and smartphones to televisions and tablets. With more exposure to such systems, a user expects certain attributes. “Scientists look for user interfaces that are similar to those found in general business applications, such as Microsoft Office,” says Linda Doherty, senior manager of product marketing for software and informatics at Agilent Technologies. “Our studies have shown that the older, menu-based user interfaces are more difficult to navigate, and lab analysts and technicians—more familiar with smartphone applications—expect a user interface that guides the analyst through tasks without words and menus.” Even a pull-down menu can be too much trouble to navigate for some scientists.
The similarity between the interface with a smartphone and a CDS goes one step further: Scientists often seek a mobile-app option for their CDS. That, says Doherty, should provide “a responsive interface to easily check on samples and instrument status remotely.” In the past, Alliston and his colleagues at Sterling used two CDSs located in different buildings. “When we switched to Thermo Fisher’s Chromeleon,” Alliston explains, “we needed just one system.” Chromeleon provides centralized control, enabling scientists to keep an eye on all the chromatography platforms from the same place.
Running multiple instruments in various locations from one CDS offers the benefit of keeping a company’s data in one spot. This centralized data storage allows for better organization with possibilities for archiving and disaster recovery” says Barbara van Cann, product specialist for chromatography software at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
A modern CDS interface should not only be easy to use, but also simple to learn. Alliston says, “In training new staff, you want the software to be easy and intuitive, so they pick it up quite easily and have a shortened learning curve.” He adds that a good CDS should “just flow, so that someone could have a good stab at getting something done on it even without training.”
Still, a good CDS comes with training tools. “User assistance tools must be readily available, not just online help, but tutorials and videos,” Doherty says.
With a CDS, collecting the data is important, but what scientists can do with that data also matters. “A big thing for our interface is reporting,” Alliston says. “You can do any calculation that you want.”
The data in a CDS can be mined through queries. For example, a scientist can collect all the data for injections on a particular day or by a specific person. “This also lets you do stability analysis,” Alliston says. “We can look at data on a type of injection across months, and put it all in a report without needing something like Excel.”
Certain CDS features can also help researchers meet regulatory requirements. “Regulatory authorities make it a requirement to review the audit trail of data,” Alliston says. “With our CDS, the audit trail is really easy to look at.” That’s not always the case, because he points out that the audit trail can be hard to find and difficult to interpret in some chromatography software. For anyone planning to use a CDS on research that is regulated, it’s worth finding a product that helps a company see what happened all along a data trail and why.
Sterling Pharma Solutions produces active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) for multinational companies as well as for tiny ones. Some of those APIs go to research and others go into pills on the market. Sterling also sells APIs to pharmaceutical companies in the European, Japanese, and U.S. markets. That means that its CDS interface must accommodate a variety of expectations, such as nuances in regulatory rules from different agencies.
To make it easier to provide what regulators need, van Cann points out that a CDS can offer features such as electronic signatures and built-in instrument and software qualification.
Which features matter the most depends on the way in which a CDS will be used. For any application, though, scientists should expect a robust and intuitive interface.