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Breaking Old Research Habits for Better Outcomes

Helping researchers understand the unknown barriers they face 

by Eric Roman
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Driving the need for change

It’s safe to say that routine methods and repetitive tasks can create habitual behavior. The life science lab is an ordinary workplace for many and is no exception. Whether working in a cell culture, genetics, or food safety laboratory, many lab professionals and researchers are using protocols, equipment, and reagents that have been “handed down” from previous lab generations. They are tried and tested, and they work. And if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it, right? But what if your job and your commitment to the lab require you to push the boundaries, to make the ordinary extraordinary, to better meet the productivity needs of the scientists, and to improve the strength and reliability of the data output? “It works” will no longer suffice.

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Habits are hard to break, and personal preferences and routine can make it challenging to introduce new techniques, processes, or tools. This is especially true in the laboratory setting, where personnel become accustomed to, and even form attachments to, their favorite equipment. Methods and procedures that are followed on a daily basis become routine and second nature, while lab personnel become so familiar with them that they adapt to any minor challenges that these methods may present, often unknowingly, either because they are not aware of an alternative or they genuinely see no significant practical issue. As a consequence, when asked whether they face any obstructions or difficulties in their day-to-day work, they will likely say no.

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Some vendors take it upon themselves to handle this responsibility. They feel the need to drive technical innovation and support the important scientific discoveries and routine analyses that are taking place every day by providing the best toolkit available. But how can product development advance to solve issues that laboratory staff are unaware that they are even facing?

Understanding the need

Researchers at the bench already have access to a comprehensive range of tools, but most are still interested in learning about new product advances to assess whether they would be of real value to advancing their work. This is where the vendors who are taking on this responsibility have the opportunity to raise awareness and drive the need for change. When vendors actively talk about the real end-user benefits of a new product during a sales visit, for example, the researcher may start to realize that this innovation could, in fact, make their working life much simpler, since it overcomes a pain point that they had become accustomed to working around.

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Take a cell culture lab, for example. During cell culture, growing healthy, viable cells in extended microplate cultures is a pivotal part of the experimental protocol. However, evaporation is a common issue that researchers have always faced. The edge effect is caused when evaporation occurs in the outer wells of a plate during prolonged culture, and it changes the media pH, osmolarity, and the concentration of the media constituents, all of which will in turn affect cell viability and function and skew data across a plate. Since there have been no real solutions for this issue, it has become common practice for researchers to accept this drawback and simply leave empty the 36 perimeter wells of a 96-well plate. Although this solves the problem, this practice actually reduces the capacity of a standard plate by 37.5 percent—which will in turn have a negative impact on the overall productivity of the lab. Often, more plates and assays will also be set up to compensate for the “lost wells,” adding to consumable and reagent costs. With such a commonly observed work-around for this problem already in place, most cell culturists no longer perceive this to be a problem. However, new product innovations can provide an alternative that does not impact throughput. The incorporation of an outer perimeter moat to which sterile fluid can be added significantly reduces evaporation across the entire plate, resulting in improved viability of all cells while allowing the use of all 96 wells of the plate (as shown in Figure 1).

Figure 1. The built-in perimeter moat in the Thermo Scientific Nunc Edge 2.0 plate significantly reduces evaporation over the entire surface of the plate as compared with conventional 96- well plates from Brand N and Brand C.Lab managers have a responsibility to drive productivity and increase throughput, often while facing pressures such as budget cuts. Add in the need to maintain a sustainable and energy-efficient lab, and the pressures can become more apparent. Older technologies inherently become dated, often requiring a large amount of valuable benchtop space. They have been developed using outdated “innovations” that are simply no match for newer products, especially when it comes to increasing productivity.

Space is often at a premium in lab environments, especially as more research labs are implementing a broader array of methodologies to encompass a larger number of scientific disciplines to quickly advance their research findings. A similar situation can be observed on a larger scale. Biopharma facilities are often looking to increase production yields without the associated cost of increasing their available footprint to accommodate additional equipment. Therefore, many manufacturers are exploring innovative ways to maximize available space without compromising throughput. Scientists often don’t fully realize the limitations of their equipment and therefore do not explore alternative options.

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During large-scale biopharma scale-up, space and the ability to increase yields are just as important. One slightly larger-scale industrial example is in the vaccine market, one of the fastest growing within the pharma/biopharmaceutical industry due to expanding immunization coverage and an increase in demand for and accessibility of new vaccines. Vaccine manufacturers have optimized processes that have likely been in place for decades; however, due to the current high demand, some are looking for ways to immediately expand their capacity within their existing footprint. To increase capacity with minimal disruption, a solution is needed that requires little or no change to the existing protocols and methods. New product innovations have resulted in efficient, economical options for increasing production capacity and cell culture yield within the same footprint. By increasing the density of an existing bioproduction platform, users can benefit from 30 percent more surface area and yield, thus increasing labor and handling efficiencies by achieving more output in a single run. Manufacturing capacities are increased without capital investment, making it a cost-effective option, while contamination and waste disposal costs are reduced, providing an environmentally friendly aspect. Furthermore, because the high-density option is made of the same raw materials as the standard system, users can maintain current protocols and methods, causing minimal disruption of established procedures.

The importance of safety

Many lab protocols have safety implications, whether because of chemical fumes, repetitive motion, or simply overstretching. Safety is always a primary concern for lab managers. Advances in newer equipment and consumables put safety at the forefront to minimize risk and ensure operators’ comfort. When working with an instrument that is commonplace to the point of being overlooked, such as the pipette, staff often forget the potential safety issues associated with its use. Manual pipetting can be highly hazardous, with some models causing significant discomfort, which can result in repetitive strain injuries or carpal tunnel syndrome. This can be incurred not only through the repetitive motions of pipetting itself but also from the forces required to attach and eject pipette tips, an action that users are likely to undertake almost subconsciously. The force required for tip attachment and ejection can be quite high, resulting in not only user discomfort but also the potential for lab errors. For example, when exerting great force, there is the possibility that the user may spill the contents of the tip cassette over a sterile surface, an action that is costly in terms of time and productivity and may waste precious samples or reagents.

Figure 2. The ergonomic advances in the Thermo Scientific ClipTip pipetting systems require minimal attachment and ejection forces when compared to other pipette models.As an instrument that is so common throughout all labs, the pipette is frequently taken for granted. It is often a favorite and personalized tool, but its safe use and potential for advanced functionality are often not taken into account. When it comes to safety, users often assume that this is just something that they need to be mindful of when pipetting. Recent advances in pipette and tip technology have resulted in a system where extremely low tip attachment and ejection forces are required (Figure 2). This ergonomic advancement makes pipetting a much safer and more comfortable task.

Increasing lab efficiencies

Productivity and safety are both primary concerns for any lab manager and should, in fact, go hand in hand; safer good laboratory practices often inherently increase productivity by streamlining processes. Continuing to drive productivity and boost throughput can be challenging, especially when identifying precisely what is holding progress back can be problematic in itself. That’s why some vendors are taking it upon themselves to invest resources in the identification of these unknown barriers and translate that information into new product innovation. These manufacturers are constantly innovating and introducing new instruments and consumables to the market that increase productivity, sustainability, and energy efficiency, but these products are not of any use unless laboratory leads understand the need for these products.

In instances such as these where the need has to be identified and change has to be more actively pushed through, partnerships are forming between some of the equipment and consumables manufacturers and leads within the labs to help those in the lab better understand the challenges that may be preventing them from implementing beneficial changes. Through this partnership, lab managers can gain an understanding of the unknown barriers they are facing and begin to generate awareness across the lab team.