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The “cloud lab” is a virtual laboratory setting that can enable scientists to more quickly advance research.
Scientific research is thrilling, especially when considering the depth and breadth of the research community’s collective pursuit to expand the limits of scientific knowledge and innovation. While it is important to dream about the next significant advancement in scientific discovery, pharmaceutical companies want to achieve results sooner, which means they must also address the everyday challenges of building and running a laboratory.
Scientific research is expensive, complex, and slow. Fortunately, some companies are developing strategies to improve how scientists and technicians execute experiments so scientific discoveries manifest faster and cheaper. One of those strategies is to run experiments through the cloud.
The biotechnology industry was born from a need to boost biomedical research and development (R&D) productivity. Before the 1970s, companies could only produce insulin by extracting it from the pancreas of an animal—a costly, inefficient, and invasive process. Researchers later discovered how to generate proteins using bacteria, however, and eventually founded Genentech, now a Roche company, to produce insulin quickly and cheaply based on this new technology.
Yet advancements in molecular biology techniques are not sufficient to solve the productivity challenges scientists and lab managers face today. Despite the existence of high-throughput systems, robotics, and automation, laboratories still confront productivity challenges daily. In a 2017 survey, most lab managers surveyed expressed concern about several inefficiencies in their workflows (1). Listing their top five challenges at work, 73% of lab managers mentioned instrument maintenance and downtime, 60% listed time-consuming sample preparation, and 50% cited the need for better data management. Regarding factors that limited their productivity, 80% cited time-consuming sample preparation, 73% listed scheduled downtime, 67% listed unplanned downtime, 64% cited method transfer and the validation of new instruments, and 40% cited time for training new laboratory technicians.
In a 2019 survey, another cohort of lab managers stated that their primary focus at their job was achieving quicker results (2). These lab managers said that to become more productive, they were buying more sophisticated laboratory instruments, improving tracking of sample chain custody, and hiring better-qualified staff.
All these data point to the fact that productivity is still top-of-mind for most laboratory managers, and that they spend a significant amount of time and energy developing strategies to deliver results faster. In most cases, the promise of automation and robotics has not fully panned out because lab managers can only introduce piecemeal solutions thanks to limits in technology and funding. But pharmaceutical companies have another route that could solve most of the challenges lab managers face today at a reasonable cost: cloud laboratories. Cloud labs apply the latest advancements in automation and robotics techniques to remove the inefficiencies in life science research and optimize scientific experimentation.
A genuine cloud laboratory is a fully equipped scientific research facility where scientists can perform their research virtually at any time, via a single software interface, without setting foot inside the laboratory. While various companies have implemented technology that automates specific workflows or segments of the experimental process, a cloud lab completely unburdens scientists from having to perform their own experiments while still giving them complete control over every aspect of their workflows. This eliminates the day-to-day challenges of managing a working laboratory and gives molecular biologists maximum flexibility to pursue any hypothesis to its end. The ideal cloud laboratory meets the following five criteria:
The growing demand for novel therapies has put pressure on pharmaceutical companies to face the industry’s ever-present financial pressures and logistical challenges. Pharmaceutical companies are constantly searching for more streamlined processes to reduce the need for laboratory space, staff, and equipment. Many are choosing whether to build or buy; they are deciding if it will be more cost-efficient to scale up and build new laboratory facilities or to outsource development.
Each option presents distinct benefits and limitations. Constructing a new laboratory is a highly involved process. Laboratories require unique plumbing and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, energy-consuming equipment, capital-intensive scientific instruments, and expensive consumables. Purchasing and maintaining laboratory equipment, hiring and training staff, and purchasing consumables can cost tens of millions of dollars per year. Despite its costs, however, owning laboratory space grants scientists direct control over their scientific pursuits. But no matter how advanced the laboratory, most lab managers will continue to face limits to their productivity.
Outsourcing R&D eliminates the need for companies to build their own facilities, but this paradigm presents a new set of challenges. First, contracting a contract research organization (CRO) can land a pharmaceutical company on a long waiting list for services, which can slow down progress. Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies lose direct control over their research when partnering with a CRO.
Cloud labs allow pharmaceutical companies to enjoy the best of both worlds, giving them full access to remote laboratory facilities without forcing them to give up control over the scientific process. A cloud lab enables scientists to run their experiments faithfully in a virtual setting, freeing pharmaceutical companies from building laboratory space and scientists from having to purchase, maintain, and operate their own equipment. With a subscription to a cloud lab, pharmaceutical companies can spend less time setting up, maintaining, and running a laboratory and more time developing new research questions and designing experiments.
With laboratory operations out of the way, R&D can run more efficiently and save companies money. A single scientist can submit a protocol to a cloud lab at any time and get up and running in a few hours, and then the laboratory will operate 24/7 to execute their study. Cloud labs are highly automated, so one scientist can run multiple experiments simultaneously and complete their studies faster. By performing its research in a cloud lab, a pharmaceutical company can operate just as efficiently, if not more, with fewer staff members and other overhead costs.
Cloud labs also address the scourge of irreproducible research in several different ways. Scientists have identified several factors that contribute to the reproducibility crisis, including unreliable instruments, underpowered datasets, and constant data loss; cloud labs solve many of these issues. Combining automation and ongoing tracking and quality control, a true cloud lab is so precise in its execution of experiments that any workflow is instantly reproducible.
Scientists must script every detail of their experiment for the cloud lab to execute it correctly, which means protocols can be replicated at the push of a button. The simplicity of this process makes it easier to collect more data, thereby increasing a dataset’s statistical power. Furthermore, research groups who wish to publish their protocols can do so with such fine detail that any other research group could precisely replicate it and validate the original findings.
A true cloud lab can completely replace a physical laboratory for most basic life science applications. Pharmaceutical companies do not need to invest in laboratory facilities, expensive equipment, or maintenance. Scientists can spend less time preoccupied with the challenges of running a laboratory and more time focused on designing new experiments and interpreting data. The time needed to repair a malfunctioning instrument and train qualified staff will no longer factor into a laboratory’s budget or slow down discovery. Instead, by using a cloud lab and running multiple workflows in parallel 24/7, scientists can significantly accelerate their research and launch research groups into a new era of scientific discovery and innovation.
1. Agilent Technologies, “Agilent Technologies Global Lab Manager Survey Reveals Key Insights,” Press Release, June 7, 2017.
2. Agilent Technologies, “Agilent Survey of Pharma Lab Leaders Uncovers Challenges in Workflow and Laboratory Efficiencies,” Press Release, June 4, 2019.
Toby Blackburn is head of Business Development and Strategy at Emerald Cloud Lab.