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ELN Users in Pharma, Academia, Highlight Need to Support Internal and External Collaborations

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By Uduak Grace Thomas

Accelrys this week released an updated version of its electronic laboratory notebook — Symyx Notebook by Accelrys — which now includes capabilities for handling work requests and tracking experiments and samples as well as providing support for research collaborations.

These features "move the ELN far beyond just a paper notebook replacement" and provide a "better integrated, more collaborative environment for scientists," Todd Johnson, Accelrys' executive vice president of sales, services, support, and marketing, said in a statement.

This emphasis on collaboration echoes comments from several ELN users who participated in a recent roundtable discussion with BioInform.

Alan Ferguson, senior director of information technology at Merck Research Laboratories, said that ELNs are "core" to his company's activities, where they are used "extensively" from non-regulated preclinical research through to the regulated space and the manufacturing phase.

Merck's system, an E-Notebook from PerkinElmer (formerly CambridgeSoft), is able to both "capture intellectual property" as well as manage laboratory activities, he said.

Similarly, Daniel Weaver, Array Biopharma's associate director of scientific computing, said his firm uses an ELN for "everything" from the early stages of target identification and validation; through to lead generation and optimization; and on to translational medicine and process chemistry. Array Biopharma also uses the E-Notebook ELN.

Michael Stapleton, the general manager of PerkinElmer's informatics arm, said his company beefed up its lab informatics portfolio because of what it saw as a "critical mass around the ELN capabilities in the market."

In March, the company purchased ArtusLabs and CambridgeSoft, both of which offer ELN products, for a combined purchase price of $220 million (BI 3/25/2011). Two months later, PerkinElmer bought Canada-based Labtronics for an undisclosed amount (BI 5/20/2011).

According to Stapleton, most large pharma, chemical, and biotech companies have deployed commercial ELNs from one of the main vendors, which includes companies like Accelrys.

Customers deploy these systems "principally in research, largely in chemistry," though he said the technology has a "growing" role in biology research. ELNs have also taken hold in development — particularly around manufacturing where they are an important part of quality assurance and quality control processes, he said.

But there is still an opportunity for further growth in the ELN market, particularly as funding for research and development activities — traditionally provided by big pharma, venture capital firms, and funding agencies — dries up in the current economic climate, he said.

As R&D budgets shrink, drugmakers and academic research groups are looking to make the most of the information they've already generated internally and through research partnerships. This presents an opportunity for ELNs that promise to make this information easily accessible to anyone who needs it.

Merck's Ferguson noted that pharmaceutical companies are increasingly opting to farm out portions of their research and development process to external groups.

Under this scenario, ELNs can foster environments "that will allow you to sustain research with … more partnerships, as opposed to internally being driven 100 percent by your own resource." ELNs, in essence, provide "the glue that brings together these collaborations," Ferguson said.

For Merck, this calls for a system that enables collaborations while simultaneously amalgamating internally- and externally-generated intellectual property so that users can make better decisions, he said.

PerkinElmer's Stapleton noted that "one of the greatest needs" within pharma is for infrastructure to support these efforts "in terms of security, best practices, and workflows."

He added that although offerings from his company and others "are a good starting point" in attempts to address these issues, "we haven't gotten there yet."

Convincing the Holdouts

While ELNs appear to have been broadly accepted in the commercial setting, several participants in the BioInform roundtable noted that these systems are still struggling to gain a foothold in academic markets.

Scott Schaus, a professor of chemistry at Boston University, explained that academics have been reluctant to use ELNs in part because of their cost and also because older researchers simply prefer paper-based methods of tracking experiments.

PerkinElmer's Stapleton noted, however, that cost shouldn’t be an issue as most ELN vendors provide large discounts to academics.

Furthermore, he said, most large academic institutions spend as much as some large pharmas on lab supplies, including things like reagents, kits, and instrumentation.

In response, Schaus explained that while commodities like reagents and chemicals are seen among academics as "crucial" for research, "there [isn't] a value placed on software" — particularly among older researchers who aren't as technologically savvy as their younger counterparts.

Similarly, at Merck, ELN adoption received "different degrees of pushback" depending on its perception and researchers' insistence on sticking to well-known protocols, Ferguson said.

The solution, he suggested, is to find a way to prove the value of the software to the end user.

To that end, "we worked closely with PerkinElmer ... to try to build in these workflows." The end product was "not an adoption, but an adaption" to the needs and business processes of Merck researchers, he explained. "That adaption piece is a one-off cost that you have to pay and you have to pay close attention to make sure you get to a successful rollout."

In spite of the academic resistance to ELNs, Schaus is optimistic that software can make inroads into the market.

He said his institution has implemented a lot of the same pieces that its industry counterparts have, including a lab information management system, a lab analytical capture system, and a biological data storage system, which all run on a cloud infrastructure within the university.

"Academics are just now starting to understand that these pieces are necessary" for their research efforts, he said. As a result, "I do see this being implemented within [these] institutions."

PerkinElmer's Stapleton cited external market surveys that estimated that five percent of academic communities have adopted an ELN. That figure is expected to increase as researchers make the switch from paper to electronic-based tracking, he said.

Stapleton added that market surveys also predict "more efficient" ELN adoption by contract research organizations, which have historically used multiple systems depending on their client's requirements.

The use of multiple systems is a problem that has also hampered pharma's collaborations, since most companies have their own preferred internal systems, workflows, and research protocols, Merck's Ferguson added.

Merck, for instance, has its own established internal research protocols, "but as we go forward ... will those remain the same? [S]hould we impose them on a partner" or "work to integrate those processes with ours?" Ferguson asked.

These questions have "implications on the technologies and tools that we need to be able to sustain those collaborations," he said.

During the conversation, several participants suggested that cloud infrastructure could be the key to enabling cross-organization collaborations — particularly for smaller biotechs and academic groups that don't have the resources to invest in large-scale ELN deployments.

Merck's Ferguson pointed out that there are still a lot of variables, such as performance and information security, that need to be addressed before cloud infrastructure can be widely adopted within the pharma environment, however.


Have topics you'd like to see covered in BioInform? Contact the editor at uthomas [at] genomeweb [.] com.

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