Pandemic accelerates digitalisation in the lab sector
Laboratories are just one of the many businesses that have been forced to adapt to COVID-19. While some QA/QC labs have fared well, others that rely on collaborative output have suffered. The result is an acceleration towards the adoption of digital technologies such as Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS). Here, Lab Innovations interviews Simon Wood, Product Manager, and Tim Daniels, Marketing Manager at LIMS specialist Autoscribe Informatics about just how laboratories are responding.
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Lab Innovations (LI): How has the nature of laboratory work changed during the COVID-19 crisis?
Tim Daniels (Tim): We’ve seen two largely different approaches. Most of the specialist quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) labs that we work with have continued to operate.
They may be carrying out food testing or blood sample analysis. These labs have adapted by staggering shift patterns for staff in the lab to ensure they can continue to abide by social distancing rules.
The second type of approach we’ve seen is where labs are unable to adhere to social distancing, or they simply don’t have the automated systems to allow them to work remotely. Many of the staff in these labs have been furloughed and the testing has been sub-contracted to specialist labs. The results are then fed back and interpreted as required.
Simon Wood (Simon): While these QA/QC labs have fared well enough, other types of labs that specialise in research and development (R&D) have been hit harder. These R&D labs rely on collaboration and social interaction to operate.
Beyond the benefit of scientific serendipity that happens through a chance encounter with a colleague over coffee, or bumping into them in the corridor, scientists in small biotech research firms must be physically present in the lab to set up and run experiments, much of which cannot easily be automated or sub-contracted. They also typically work across organisations and collaborate internationally.
While these companies can work remotely to some extent — for example, to design molecules in-silico using a computer at home — the latter stages of these projects must be completed in a lab.
LI: Which tasks are more difficult, or cannot be carried out remotely?
Simon: Many of the samples that are collected in the field have been more difficult to obtain recently. Take the water industry, for example. Samplers that have to go out to reservoirs, sewage and waste outlets and other taps in the field, have to physically collect the sample and then bring them back to the lab and transfer the samples for testing.
This is not a process that can be easily standardised for automation. Different tests may require bottles of different volumes, made from either glass or plastic to ensure the bottle material doesn’t affect the analytical results. What’s more, these bottles need to be washed and sterilised at the end of the testing cycle, ready to go out for the next batch of samples; still a surprisingly manual process.
There are also other instruments that require manual handling. Devices including gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers need to be periodically calibrated and maintained to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the data they produce. This maintenance is carried out manually by qualified staff and recorded for compliance purposes.
Tim: Within the lab, there are also other processes that are still carried out manually. While some labs have automated many of their liquid handling processes — and it is really large pharmaceutical companies that have done this — for the majority of labs it’s still more cost effective to manually aliquot samples into smaller sampling tubes. If any further mixing or heating of these samples is required, this would typically require manual handling as well.
LI: What digital systems are laboratory staff now relying on while working remotely?
Tim: For years we’ve seen slow progress in the digitisation of lab work. Even now, many labs rely on rudimentary, paper-based or spreadsheet-based methods of recording and sharing information. From a compliance perspective, most of the regulations can be met with paper systems.
Recently, however, there has been a growing move to digitalise; to meet the increasing complexity of modern labs, bring together fragmented processes and allow collaboration across teams and organisations.
COVID-19 has forced people to rethink their assumptions about digitalisation. People are now less apprehensive about accessing and sharing information remotely, whether that’s through the cloud, a browser, or over a secure VPN connection.
LI: What role do LIMS play in advancing digitalisation in the laboratory sector?
Simon: Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) have been around for decades, but in the last few years they’ve become a central platform for many labs in bringing together many parts of their everyday work.
Beyond the basic sample management and traceability, LIMS offer a secure place to manage, validate and distribute data automatically in a way that meets regulatory compliance. Scientists can also use LIMS to manage their workflows across the devices and instruments they use in the lab.
What’s more, the latest LIMS platforms are designed with collaboration in mind. Version management of files is seamless, allowing multiple people to collaborate remotely, creating and managing an audit trail of all changes. Users can sign contracts with industry recognised digital signatures.
LIMS can prevent users that are not qualified from carrying out certain workflows, thereby ensuring the accuracy and validity of the results. LIMS can also remind users when to carry out maintenance and calibration checks, and record these for compliance purposes.
Ultimately, with increasing laboratory automation, LIMS will become vital in managing large volumes of data quickly, securely and effectively. The COVID-19 pandemic will just accelerate the process of digitization. As the world changes post-crisis, the laboratory industry will also adapt to succeed.