LIMs vs ELNs – what does your lab need? Part 1

Researchers often ask whether a LIMS or an ELN is right for them. In this two-part series, Barry Bunin, PhD, CEO at Collaborative Drug Discovery, offers a guide to understanding what a LIMS is, and how it differs from other scientific data management systems.

In the lab, being able to run research experiments and get results on time is crucial. Many labs need to give a third-party – eg regulatory body – detailed information about what happens to samples from the time they arrive in the lab until the reports were created and sent and the client invoiced. Timely, accurate, and replicable processes and protocols play an important role in helping drug discovery and development labs, do their research well and maintain their reputation. LIMS are tailor-made to help labs accomplish these goals efficiently.

These systems let users track samples and information associated with the samples from the moment they enter the lab through experimentation through to the final report. They store information such as inspection number, batch material, time and date when the sample was entered, what tests were done, etc. These are simple pieces of data to collect but they are critical to ensuring the quality of the lab process, especially in a GxP-regulated environment.

The need for proper data and sample tracking is important in today’s high-throughput research environments. Labs need to store and track large quantities of experimental data for longer periods of time. They routinely run experiments on hundreds or thousands of samples which, coupled with the increasing complexity of drug discovery data makes less automated methods of data tracking like spreadsheets untenable.

LIMS also reduce the risk of human error during data collection and tracking. They catch errors in workflows and ensure that lab protocols are being followed to the letter. Multiple people in a lab can access and view the same workflows and results using a single system. These systems are required to comply with various government regulations – labs can be sure of the quality of their output and that the processes used to get to those results adhere to appropriate regulations and standards for their field.

What LIMS do

Broadly speaking, commercial LIMS offer the following core functionality:

Sample, inventory and data management: Samples entering the laboratory, are logged and registered in the system including any associated customer data as well as the time and date the sample was brought in. The LIMS assigns the sample a unique identifier, eg a unique barcode, to the sample to track it through the entire lab. LIMS can be used to maintain inventories of reagents and other lab resources including details like expiration dates, storage requirements for samples and reagents, and quantities of supplies.

Instrument integration and workflow management: LIMS can connect to laboratory instruments and applications making it easy to pass along information about a sample and launch experiments directly from the software. These solutions can automatically assign tasks related to a sample, let researchers know where samples are supposed to go, and suggest instruments that are appropriate for a given experiment. During experiments, LIMS can monitor instrument runs, and flag errors or problems. Labs can use the system to prioritise runs and perform batch runs. Lastly, LIMS can import results from experiments into analysis software for analysis and interpretation or send the sample on to other instruments for further testing.

Quality and compliance: These systems provide centralised access to quality control data. For labs that need to meet specific regulatory requirements, LIMS can provide audit trails for samples and data as well as quality control and quality assurance information.

Other functionality can include chain of custody, custom reporting functionality, role assignment, task management, electronic signatures, supply management, instrument maintenance, and customer invoicing and billing. Most vendors let users customise their systems to their specific needs.

LIMS vs ELN and other systems

Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs) are often confused with LIMS solutions. While these systems share some capabilities and there are cases where either one will work for the tasks that a lab needs, there are some noted differences. While LIMS typically follow pre-defined generalised workflows defined at the level of lab management, ELNs tend to be more personalised and flexible to change by individual researchers. This distinction makes sense in the context of regulated environments where LIMS are needed to support the tightly regimented workflows and structured data required in these spaces. ELNs may be better suited for research and discovery environments where changing workflows and unstructured data are more of the norm.

LIMS are designed to simplify the task of tracking and locating samples, reagents, and chemicals when needed. This is important if a researcher is running an experiment, recording processes and capturing data in an ELN, and suddenly needs to locate a specific reagent in storage. Having access to an integrated LIMS/ELN platform can keep the experiment moving seamlessly and without delays.

Laboratory Information Systems or LIS sometimes gets confused with a LIMS. LIS were initially designed for clinical and forensic settings and include functionality for capturing and reporting data related to people rather than samples. It is important here to distinguish LIMS from compound registration systems such as Arxspan, Dotmatics Register and CDD Vault. These solutions have LIMS-like functionality including registration, ID number assignment, and tracking capabilities, but they are designed to capture, register, and organise structures and activities at the chemical/biological compound level, rather than sample level.

However, the lines between these systems are fluid. Some LIMS offer LIS-like functionality for capturing patient data that can support diagnostic labs, for example. Some vendors merge LIS and LIMS systems into a single infrastructure. The same holds true for LIMS and ELNs as well as for LIMS and compound registration systems. It is also not uncommon for commercial vendors to offer integrated platforms that pair the capabilities of multiple solutions or for some systems to include functionalities from others. For example, some ELN solutions include LIMS functionality like sample management capabilities. Some LIMS solutions can also function as ELNs because they include modules for capturing and sharing information related to experiments.

Advantages of LIMS

Easy Administration: They take the guesswork out of sample administration and management, and cut down paperwork. They streamline laboratory processes, improving productivity and shortening time to results.

Saving Money: By making lab processes and workflows more efficient and automated, these systems can result in time and cost savings. They free members of the lab to focus on tasks that add value to the business rather than wasting time searching for mislabelled samples for example.

Everything in a single standardised system: No wasted time searching for or tracking information contained in multiple systems because teams have access to everything from a single system. LIMS help ensure that internal workflows meet the requisite quality control and quality assurance guidelines.

Easy access: Global internet connection means members of a lab can access information in their LIMS or launch experiments virtually.

Integration with existing systems: It is now standard practice for LIMS solutions to integrate with third-party infrastructure already being used in the lab. That includes sequencing instruments, spectrometers, PCR machines, etc. Many vendors of existing lab instruments also market LIMS as part of their portfolios.

Eliminates the need for expensive hardware: This is an important benefit of cloud-based LIMS solutions. The system is managed by the vendor so labs that take this route don’t need hired dedicated IT personnel or purchase new hardware to support the solution.

Next issue: LIMS in drug discovery and choosing the right one for your lab

About the author

Barry Bunin, PhD is CEO of Collaborative Drug Discovery, provider of the CDD Vault research informatics platform. Prior to CDD, he was an Entrepreneur in Residence with Eli Lilly & Co. Dr. Bunin is on a patent for Carfilzomib, a protease inhibitor drug for the treatment of multiple myeloma.

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