Onwards and upwards: IT and automation in the lab

Onwards and upwards: IT and automation in the lab

The move towards automation has been a key trend in the pharma and biotech sectors. We’ve seen the robotic handling and processing of samples move from high-throughput screening domains onto the discovery bench. Almost every lab now has a liquid handling or clone/cell-picking robot, and high-content single-cell screening instruments are replacing fluorescence-activated cell sorters. Scientists want to see seamless flows of data from lab instruments into processing, analysis and knowledge platforms. Guest blogger Agnes Huot, former Director of R&D IT at Biogen Idec, explains.

IT and software now exist to configure an integrated automation environment. Perhaps the most interesting evolution here has been the electronic lab notebook (ELN), which is no longer just for the archiving of intellectual property but a real transactional tool for daily lab operations. The modern ELN can manage files direct from instruments or from scientific data management systems (SDMS) or laboratory information management systems (LIMS), as well as performing analyses.

However, information architecture needs to be not just an IT challenge, but a laboratory way of life. Many labs still store raw data local to their instruments, and take steps to preserve data on shared file systems only when the local disk is full or when a scientist or lab deems an experiment campaign worth preserving. But then it’s ‘store it and forget it’ – write-once, read-never behavior. IT can be the data stewards – but ultimately scientists are the data owners. They are the key in ensuring data value.

Research and IT also need to partner to understand the lab processes and translate these into repeatable workflows. Until then, these workflows can’t be designed to be infinitely flexible without compromising the consistency of analysis.

The task of automation now involves not just technical knowledge of one application, but several applications and their integration points or possibilities. The ‘power-user’ scientist needs IT help with this, and IT needs to understand the business process. Organizations, in turn, need to consider how to maintain these cross-application workflows – there may even need to be distinct roles for these ‘workflow architects’. One thing’s for sure – IT and ELNs will continue to play a key role in the lab and driving science forward.

Agnes was the senior IT partner to Biogen Idec’s research, which includes biologics and small-molecule drug discovery. She was also the architect and strategic owner of the ConnectedLab initiative, which has delivered an integrated environment of electronic lab notebook, molecule registration, lab instrument data management, inventory and project browser.