Using digital technology to solve compound management problems

Managing Director of Ziath, Neil Benn MSc, explains to Lu Rahman how the latest mobile and internet-enabled technologies will impact the science of compound management.

Ziath is a UK-based company specialising in design, development and production of instrumentation for sample management. Ziath’s primary product range is 2D barcode scanners for tubes held in racks supported by sophisticated sample management software.

LR: How has sample management changed over recent years?

NB: When I first started, sample management meant storing samples in unlabelled tubes in a freezer in the car park. The only labelling was on the rack or bag. If you were particularly advanced, you’d have a 1D barcode on the sides of the rack.

Databases were just Word or Excel files; there was no sophisticated tracking for chemical compounds. It has totally changed in the last 20 years as sample management began to be taken seriously and organisations realised that compound libraries were highly valuable.

The introduction of 2D barcodes tubes changed things. At first the equipment was not easy to use. When we started Ziath we were the first to make sample tracking barcode reading tools that addressed this.

LR: Where are the main challenges labs face with compound management?

NB: The main challenge is that it’s easy to misidentify a tube. You could send the wrong compound out to the screening team. If a rack of tubes gets dropped on the floor, you can easily lose the ID of each sample; that’s a core mistake. By storing compounds in utility freezers which may experience variation in temperature and do not have sophisticated tracking built in, you could also damage your samples.

Without good data tracking systems, you can lose compounds because your tracking can’t keep up with the number of compounds you’re handling.

LR: What difference has technology had on compound management and what benefits has it brought to the lab in terms of efficiencies and resource savings?

NB: Today, samples are stored in 2D barcoded tubes from different manufacturers. Samples are stored in either large freezers or liquid nitrogen tanks – not insulated labs with internet and Wi-Fi.

Even with enterprise-scale database systems, to track barcoded tubes and racks, you still have to write which tank, rack, shelf or freezer your sample is in on paper. You take that paper, pull the tube out, tick it off, and bring it back to the lab to check that you’ve got the right one.

What scientists really want to do is to check the compound ID at the point of retrieval. Typically however rooms with fridges and liquid nitrogen tanks aren’t laptop friendly. With the latest generation 2D barcode scanner technology, you can be in the lab, get the information on your mobile, head down to storage facility with that app, and process the tubes, checking you have the right ones. This eliminates pen and paper errors.

LR: Where do you see mobile devices and apps helping overcome challenges and what are their main benefits?

NB: A portable remote control for your sample management process will allow you to pick up a tube, scan it and read off the next step in the process. You can track samples as they enter your lab, book them in and mark as ‘in my workplace’.  The app will allow you to pull out a compound, scan it, and register it as you need it. This innovation will allow drug discovery to catch up with the business world in the adoptation of mobile devices for controlling processes from start to finish.

LR: Where is the technology currently at and how can drug discovery researchers make best use of it?

NB: There are handheld devices that allow you to scan individual tubes that can interact with third-party systems, integrated into the workflow. In the future, battery-powered devices will support Bluetooth so that rather than bringing your samples to the barcode scanner, you will take a barcode scanner to the samples. The next generation will be portable, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-enabled devices that read a rack of tubes in one go.

In future compound management will embrace the concept of mobile technologies with portable readers controlled from a web page or phone. This will unchain the whole sample tracking process from the bench to the point of storage. Adopting this new technology will help eliminate errors and protect valuable compound libraries.

Neil Benn, Managing Director, Ziath.

Volume 22, Issue 1 – Winter 2020/21


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