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Trends in Laboratory Informatics

Reporting from two recent laboratory informatics conferences, Gloria Metrick shares her insights into choosing the best informatics product to suit a particular labs needs and how some issues are evolving.

by Gloria Metrick
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The Latest News from This Fall's Informatics Conferences and Meetings

I’ve been invited to speak at and chair more and more meetings in the laboratory informatics industry. While many conferences waive or lower conference fees for speakers, travel costs still add up. Thus, when I was invited to four conferences in the fall of 2010, I knew I would not be able to attend them all. First, it takes too much time away from work. Second, the cost is too high. Third, because some of these conferences are held in Europe, the cost is higher still.

So, I thought I would share some of my conference experiences with you as you’re not likely to be attending all these events, either. I wondered, “What would a laboratory manager find interesting or useful from all these laboratory informatics meetings?” I realize that some laboratory managers have entire departments of people to select software for them or inform them about developments in the laboratory informatics industry. But that’s not true for everyone. Either way, laboratory managers must wonder at times which informatics products could best help their labs, and how some issues are evolving.

From the two conferences I attended recently, I’ve identified several topics that either came up at both events and/or provoked quite a bit of discussion. The two conferences were the VIB “Laboratory Data Management USA 2010” in Boston and the IQPC Pharma IQ “ELNs and Advanced Laboratory Solutions” in Amsterdam.

Buying laboratory informatics

For those of you looking to buy software for your laboratory to replace your laboratory notebook or for any other reason, it’s still rare for you to simply buy software and just install it. Many of the larger packages still need a full project path to implement them in your lab. You will still need someone specifically dedicated to setting up and/or programming that software before you can fully use it. The word “configuration” is still used to refer to programming activities.

Build versus buy

While our industry has long touted the vast amount of software on the market, there are still areas for which software has to be custom written. One area where labs sometimes buy systems but also write them in-house is drug discovery. So, if you’re managing such a lab, just be aware that you can look for solutions in the market, but depending on what you’re doing, you might decide that it makes more sense to write software for your specific application.

LIMS versus ELNs

Laboratories continue to ask about the dividing line between LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) and ELN (Electronic Laboratory Notebook). Which one owns the results, for example? Which exact features should be used when both provide them? The industry continues to change, and both systems continue to encroach on each other’s territory. However, at these two conferences, I think our industry finally came to an agreement that the convergence is happening. The terms LIMS and ELN no longer mean anything. More acronyms have come up as vendors try to define the new space, but that just adds to the confusion.

Vendors and customers alike have recognized that traditional roles for LIMS in sample management and for ELN as a replacement for the paper notebook are now outdated. Additionally, other tools, such as SDMS (Scientific Data Management Systems) and ECM (Enterprise Content Management), integrate and tie together the entire laboratory picture and facilitate good document and file management. However, getting all the systems coordinated continues to require good planning and a good bit of work.

To those of you who may be a bit confused about what to select, industry vendors and end-user companies that have already gone through the process can tell you that it is more important than ever to know your requirements. It’s pointless to decide you need one system or another. What you need isn’t based on some acronym; it’s based on what you actually need.

The cloud

Your IT department might have told you that you’re going to use “the cloud.” You may be wondering what that refers to. It just means that someone else is storing your data and/or hosting your application. Actually, there can be private clouds run by your own company that make it possible for you to get access to heavy computing power or large amounts of data storage. Those of you managing small labs may already be using cloud computing for intense computing power to compete with larger companies that have access to the supercomputers. But that’s not what your IT group is probably talking about. They probably mean they’re thinking of storing things like your e-mail, management data, product data, laboratory data and other information in one of these cloud spaces.

The problem is that privacy issues do need to be worked out before such data gets stored in the cloud. If your company decides that you can store e-mail outside the company (such as with Amazon or Microsoft), but not critical product data, that means you need to have policies in place to make sure you’re not using e-mail to send your critical product data to others, even within the company. So, a decision to use the cloud to store such communication may have an impact on how you will share your data, depending on how you currently do that as well as how you intend to do it in the future.

Legal issues

While laboratory managers don’t often get involved in legal issues, some are frustrated with company lawyers regarding the use of ELNs. Cheer up. More and more company lawyers are becoming comfortable with these systems; more companies are allowing digital signatures, rather than printing the paper and signing it; and there are even companies starting to discuss machine witnessing, and it appears that some have already implemented it. With machine witnessing, instead of having a notebook witness review things and sign off, the machine (i.e., your computer via the software running the ELN) checks that everything is finished and witnesses it. This is more likely to occur in truly structured areas, however. Thus, if you are doing early research, where processes are less rigid, this is unlikely to be automated. If your work is in a later stage of the process, such as Development or Quality Control, where the processes tend to be less flexible, it is more likely to be a candidate for early machine-witnessing.

Projects and data

At the conferences I attended, many customers gave presentations about project issues or discussed details of managing or coordinating their data. No single strategy seems to work for everyone, as these presentations attested, but some good ideas were put forward. For those companies about to embark on new and large laboratory informatics projects, these conferences are useful, if only for to find out how other companies handle issues that arise with just about all projects. Additionally, attending conferences enables participants to speak with the other companies’ representatives and ask them questions. Laboratory managers who will buy or influence the purchase of these systems should consider attending one of these meetings. If your IT department will be handling the purchase, you should encourage them to attend so they gain an understanding of the choices available and the issues your company will face.