Steps to Consider before Implementing an Informatics System

Dr. Sheraz Gul, VP and Head of Biology at European ScreeningPort speaks candidly to Pharma IQ  about moving onto a new informatics platform, explains the steps they are taking to ensure a smooth integration and why we should lay -off giving solution providers a hard time!

Pharma IQ: Sheraz, can you tell us about your current role as VP and Head of Biology at European ScreeningPort and the work that you’re currently doing with Informatics Systems.
SG: I’ve been here, in this current role, for the last three and a half years. My main activities on a daily basis are managing the assay development and high throughput screens that we run for our academic partners. 
The assays that we develop come from a range of organisations from within Europe and beyond. We routinely develop microtitre plate based assays in a wide range of formats, from absorbance all the way through to high content imaging assays.  If these assays are fit for purpose, they are screened against our small molecule libraries, which vary in size from a few hundred up to many hundreds of thousands of compounds.
The end point of a typical project is where we have a validated Hit list, i.e., a list of compounds that appear to be genuine modulators of the target of interest. This data is then given to our academic partners and they perform further studies in their laboratories.
Pharma IQ: What current Informatics Systems are you using to help you in your work?
SG: For high throughput screening data analysis, we use the ActivityBase XE software from IDBS. It is a very powerful informatics solution, especially for compound handling and analysis of screening data.
We also use the Dotmatics Vortex software for data visualisation. This is used to plot various correlations of the outputs of screening campaigns in order to select the most appropriate compounds for further study. The visualisations can also be used to prepare Microsoft PowerPoint presentations for our academic partners, thereby allowing us to transmit key findings easily.
Pharma IQ: I believe you’re currently looking at rolling out an ELN, can you tell me the challenges within your organisation that you hope an ELN would be able to address?
SG: We are currently exploring a range of ELN options as we see this as a gap in our workflow. Our high throughput screening data processing is well organised. The ELN will be used to capture our assay development data in an electronic format and subsequently allow its association with the associated screening output. I anticipate this will allow us to store and search for specific project information with relative ease.
Another important aspect of our work relates to some of our projects being part of consortia where we have partners across multiple sites within Europe. Typically, each of the members performs their separate piece of work which is subsequently shared within the consortium. This sharing of information can be inefficient and harmonising our procedures relating to documenting experimental work will improve our productivity and at the same time reduce e-mail traffic as this is often the method by which data is shared. We are currently exploring whether to host the ELN on a central server or have it on a cloud.
Pharma IQ: Sheraz, what integration challenges do you foresee by bringing in an ELN to sit with all your other lab systems?
SG: Most of the assay development data we generate is stored on a local server and the processed screening data is stored on an Oracle database. When we ask other organisations that use an ELN and generate screening data, the feedback we have had is that integrating an ELN with other data sources can be a significant challenge that should not be underestimated.  Now that we aware of this, measures will be put in place to ensure the integration process will be completed smoothly. There is also a need for appropriate training for ELN to users so that information is recorded in a consistent manner.
Pharma IQ: A major challenge within lab automation is the lack of standards around knowledge. What's your take on that?

SG: Most of our projects are multi-disciplinary in nature and require inputs from biologists, chemists and physicians based at different sites. We most often transfer assays and compounds from one site to another and attempts are made to reproduce the results. In many cases we find that the same equipment is not available at all sites, laboratory conditions are different and each scientist performs experiments in their own way. As a result it can be difficult to deduce quickly what could be the cause of any discrepancy in the results that are obtained. Standardisation of all equipment and procedures across all sites is expensive and is unlikely occur. Therefore we have to be pragmatic and expect some differences in our results to exist and be able to deal with it in a manner that will enable the project to move forward.
Pharma IQ: Sheraz, what are the challenges in selecting a solution?
SG: There is a very long list of organisations that provide informatics solutions for the work that we carry out. One of our main concerns is that purchasing informatics solutions from different suppliers often requires customised integration which can be time consuming and expensive. In light of this, a better option is to purchase all informatics solutions from one vendor as they will understand their products the best and potentially offer a complete package and therefore overcome the need for software integration. However, it is still possible that a specific informatics solution is only available from a particular vendor and will require integration.
The advantage of opting for different vendors is that at least you can cherry pick the best informatics solution for a particular process. Overall, I would say that opting for one vendor, or cherry picking different vendors, have their advantages and disadvantages which need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Pharma IQ: What do you predict the Informatics lab will look like, say, within the next three years? So, between now and 2015, what changes are we going to see?
SG: We’ve seen a lot of downsizing and outsourcing from the big pharmaceutical companies recently and this trend is likely to continue in the short-to-mid term. Those organisations that are taking on the work from the big pharmaceutical companies need to ensure that quality is not compromised and data they generate can be exchanged with the client securely and rapidly. This will probably require vendors to integrate their software in a manner they are not familiar with and as a result will need to adapt if they wish to retain their customer base.
Pharma IQ: Do you think the informatics community needs to put more pressure on the vendors to create that cradle-to-grave solution?
SG: I think the vendors are also on a learning curve with regards to software development. Existing customers as well as potential new customers are now routinely asking vendors to provide specific informatics solutions and comprehensive on-site demonstrations prior to making a purchase. In some cases, vendors are asked to develop scripts and add icons to the software to perform specific tasks. One advantage of this for vendors is that this allows them learn from their customers and roll-out these additional capabilities to other customers.
With budgets being constrained within the traditional vendor customer base, they will need to adapt and generally they are. Hopefully, this will benefit them in the long term.