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Sourcing the Right Reagent

Managing lab purchases and juggling finances are among the top priorities for lab managers, and as the world of research reagents continues to expand, they are faced with the growing challenge of cost-efficiently acquiring high-quality reagents for the lab.

by Tania Petruzziello-Pellegrini
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A Central Online Resource Can Help Pinpoint High-quality Reagents Efficiently

As the principal investigator’s right-hand person, the lab manager is a critical player in ensuring a lab’s success. Day-to-day activities require a multifarious skill set and an ability to seamlessly switch gears at the drop of a hat. Although specific responsibilities vary between institutions, lab managers are generally master multitaskers, performing bench work, training personnel, maintaining existing lab equipment, contributing to grant submissions, overseeing safety permit applications and inspections, and establishing relationships with vendors. Managing lab purchases and juggling finances are among the top priorities, and as the world of research reagents continues to expand, lab managers are faced with the growing challenge of cost-efficiently acquiring high-quality reagents for the lab.

Maximizing lab efficiency
Minimizing the cost and time spent searching for suitable products are priorities in order to maximize lab efficiency and productivity. Scientists today are fortunate to have an abundance and a variety of reagents available, but sifting through the assortment to select just one quickly becomes daunting. The process of paring down a long list of comparable products is not straightforward, and the fact that not all products perform equally well complicates the decision further. Seasoned scientists are well aware that substandard reagents are risky and can compromise the outcome of a study. Searching for a product, performing the experiment, troubleshooting, searching for a new product should the original one not work as expected, and repeating the experiment cost the lab money and cost the staff time that would be better spent elsewhere. Therefore, in order to maximize efficiency, it is in the best interest of the lab to consciously source high-quality products.

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An increasing concern in the life science field is that of reagent quality. Researchers often take for granted that a product will perform as marketed, but some, in fact, perform below par. Research using commercial antibodies suggests that while many perform as intended, some do not work as expected, and users are cautioned to rigorously test their research antibodies prior to use.1,2

Upon generating a list of possibilities, the researcher must differentiate the quality of a product manufactured by company X versus that of similar products manufactured by company Y, company Z, and so on. A seemingly quicker alternative to this approach is to blindly purchase any reagent from the list. While bench work may begin sooner, the researcher runs the risk of wasting a great deal of time and money having to troubleshoot a problematic reagent.

Another limitation with which scientists are faced is that the uses of a product are dictated by what the manufacturer has tested. For example, a rabbit antihuman CD31 antibody tested by its manufacturer for flow cytometry is naturally suited for detecting human CD31 by flow cytometry. However, might it also be useful to a scientist looking to determine CD31 expression by immunohistochemistry? Knowing whether an unconventional use or application has already been tested, successfully or unsuccessfully, is significant information that would undoubtedly impact the design of an experiment.

A great deal of effort and resources go into designing and carrying out a study. To improve productivity and to avoid losses in time and money, it is key to be able to identify a product with a proven performance record. The challenge then is to find useful information about product quality and performance in order to make an informed decision.

Identifying information resources
High-quality reagents are central to experimental success, and information about a product helps determine its suitability for a particular study. As a result of continual lab turnover, key information can sometimes get lost in old notebooks. Knowing that a previous researcher spent two months troubleshooting three different antibodies before finding one that performed as expected is invaluable information and can quickly set the next lab member on the right track. Too often, however, labs lack a formal repository to store such key information. In other instances, the lab may be moving into a new area of research in which it has little experience. The learning curve may be steep due to inexperience with study-related reagents unless there is a resource—a colleague, a citation, or other—from which to gain insight. To avoid squandering lab resources trying to reinvent the wheel, it is imperative that experiences be shared among members of the lab and others in the same field of study.

A lab manager not only offers firsthand research experience but also has seen the mistakes and successes of past members of the lab who have since moved on. Other colleagues are also great resources and may be able to suggest a suitable reagent they have used. They may be able to provide guidance and technical details based on their experiences with the product. Of course, the insights they are able to offer are limited by their familiarity with the area of study.

Scientific literature represents another vital source of information worth investigating. Papers that reference a product of interest provide pertinent experimental details and, better yet, provide concrete proof from independent scientists that a product works and produces publication- quality data. A caveat, however, is that final figures represent several repeated experiments and do not necessarily indicate how easy or difficult it is to optimize and work with the product of interest.

Streamlining lab purchasing
“I’m going to need another order of IL8 antibody by Monday.” Lab managers hear similar phrases every day. While every lab has its own unique protocol for purchasing reagents, requests may take the form of an informal note scribbled on a piece of scrap paper, a verbal communication, or a more formal purchase requisition form. However, in the course of a hectic day in the lab, it is quite easy for a sticky note to go missing or a conversation to slip one’s mind. Moreover, the wrong product might be ordered when product details are jotted down too quickly or insufficient information is provided. Electronic requisitions containing all necessary product information would greatly facilitate the purchasing process and help ensure that the end user receives the intended product.

Digital advances facilitate research
Labs spend enormous amounts of money on reagents throughout the year. Minimizing the time and cost associated with sourcing and troubleshooting products is an important aspect of managing the lab’s budget and productivity. Consider hundreds of thousands of products from the largest and smallest life science reagent manufacturers consolidated in one online repository, together with related publications and insight from researchers who have direct experience using the product. Such a resource would essentially streamline the process of finding reagents with proven product performance in a minimal time frame. 1DegreeBio is one such resource. In addition to facilitating product comparisons by presenting reagents from various vendors on one site, the company connects scientists to valuable information required to make wise purchasing decisions.

Researchers belong to a vast worldwide network, and each scientist holds a wealth of information within his or her lab notebooks. There is no reason that a search for a reagent should end with immediate colleagues. Information shared by a distant colleague, perhaps located in a different country, may prove extremely helpful in advancing a project. This insight can be passed onto others in the form of written reviews contributed by the scientists who have used the product. An additional advantage of such a system is that it avoids the lag between conducting an experiment and publication. Information can be quickly and easily shared with the greater scientific community months or even years before formal publication of an entire body of work. This key feature effectively shrinks the expanse of the scientific community with the intent of maximizing research productivity.

While one is searching for products online, purchase orders can be easily generated and emailed directly to the lab manager at the click of a button,thus streamlining the order process. All necessary information, including supplier, product name, and catalog number, is provided in electronic format to help the lab manager maintain organized records of pending orders. As a bonus feature, past purchase orders remain on file to facilitate future orders of the same products.

With the ever-growing catalog of commercially available reagents, the process of narrowing down a long list of options is becoming more and more complex. When time or money is at a premium, there is increased pressure on the lab manager to purchase the best-quality reagents as quickly as possible. A central resource to facilitate the search for products from hundreds of suppliers is both timesaving and cost-efficient. Weighing all available information—publications, advice from trusted colleagues, and user reviews—makes the selection process easier, and pinpointing a high-quality reagent with a proven track record can lead to success at the bench.

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1. Thea A. Egelhofer, Aki Minoda, Sarit Klugman, Kyungjoon Lee, et al., “An assessment of histone-modification antibody quality,” Nat Struct Mol Biol 18 (2011): 91-93.

2. Laura Berstone, Bonnie van Wilgenburg, and William James, “Several commercially available anti-CCR5 monoclonal antibodies lack specificity and should be used with caution,” Hybridoma 31 (2012): 7-19.