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LIMS: ELN Integration

Electronic Advantage

Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) have played an important role in laboratory automation since the 1980s. In recent years however, a new type of software application has arrived on the scene – the electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) – but what are the important aspects to consider when introducing an ELN into a laboratory that is already using a LIMS?

When commercial LIMS first become available, mini-computer based chromatography data systems (CDS) were already delivering new automation capabilities, generating what was then considered to be large volumes of data. It was soon recognised that computer software could provide a useful laboratory information management layer above CDS to manage activities such as sample receipt, distribution of worklists, capture of results from CDS and other instrumentation, automate calculations, control data review, results release and reporting. Furthermore, in regulated environments, the new LIMS soon proved capable of providing an important role in controlling access to, and securing, laboratory data with audit trails suitable for regulatory scrutiny. Overall, LIMS were able to provide a useful structure to manage laboratory testing processes and the concept of the ‘electronic laboratory’ had arrived.

LIMS continued to evolve throughout the 1990s.The functional scope of LIMS increased and vendors introduced modules to manage applications such as stability testing, instrument servicing and calibration, laboratory QC and standards, as well as reagents preparation. LIMS also became more configurable, meaning that the software could be adapted to specific customer requirements by the vendor and/or the customer without the need to ‘customise’ the core product programme code. Configured systems are easier to support and straightforward to upgrade, compared to the earlier generation of (heavily) customised systems.

It was, and still is, not unusual for LIMS user requirement specifications to state that the objectives of the new LIMS include sample/test tracking, flexible data capture, automation of calculations, flexible reporting, as well as management of laboratory operations such as sample preparation, standard and reagents preparation, and instrument management. Observers could therefore be forgiven for asking why an ELN is needed. Indeed, the general trend is to reduce, rather than expand, the number of IT applications, therefore the author would argue that there is a need to apply a healthy degree of scepticism before deciding certain functionality can only be provided by acquiring a new ELN product.

The Arrival of ELN

ELNs have been available in one form or another for around 10 years.The term ‘electronic laboratory notebook’ is very intuitive and immediately promotes the notion of the ‘paperless laboratory’ – a much sought after goal by most, if not all, laboratories.ELNs were conceived to provide a new level of ability and flexibility for laboratories; they were perceived to provide functionality not easily delivered by LIMS. For example,some ELNs promote the capability to capture unstructured data in the form of diagrams, images and notes,and some allow you to integrate chemical structures, spectra and other raw data files. Others deliver a method execution functionality which provides step-wise control of how an analytical method is run allowing capture of results and other parameters at each step. Some ELNs promote themselves as either ‘biology’or ‘chemistry’ focused, with functionalities that are better suited to one or the other.

In recent years, the functional profile of ELNs is broadening to the point where ELN vendors are finding the need to add components of LIMS, and some LIMS vendors are now offering ELNs. It is therefore not surprising, and quite understandable, that newcomers in the laboratory informatics market can become confused about the differences between the two systems. 



I Already Have a LIMS – Do I Also Need a ELN?

The answer to this question is not straightforward; much will depend on what your LIMS is currently providing, or is capable of providing. ELN projects are sometimes justified on the basis of some need that is not currently being met by an existing LIMS; however, some commercial LIMS are now capable of providing much more than they used to in the past.This can be due to one of several reasons. For example, most LIMS are purchased with Phase 1 in mind and the system is implemented with a limited range of functionality to achieve go-live with the best of intentions to move onto future phases.However, for one reason or another, these future phases do not materialise.Or, if the LIMS is several years old, it may be that new software functions, features and modules that have subsequently been developed by the LIMS vendor have not been implemented. More often than not, LIMS are capable of providing much more than they are implemented (and validated) to provide, and it is worth revisiting what can be provided by your LIMS vendor before embarking on an ELN project.This might involve inviting the vendor back on site in order to present the latest capabilities of their system.After all, when evaluating the specifications of the latest ELN products it makes sense to investigate the latest capabilities of the LIMS you have already purchased. Clearly, adding functionality to an existing software system from a known supplier may offer the potential for significant cost savings compared to embarking on a project to implement a new software application; it is important to keep an open mind.

Functionality Differences between LIMS and ELN

This will very much depend on the LIMS and ELN products under consideration, although it is important to emphasise that traditionally a LIMS has successfully provided many of the functions that are sometimes now marketed as ‘ELN functions’. For example, LIMS products have always been connectable to laboratory instruments – they can login samples, print labels and distribute worklists. LIMS provide features to create and manage analytical batches including standards, blanks, QCs, and so on. LIMS products can track preparation of standard and reagents, manage laboratory inventory, instrument calibration and servicing activities, and much more. LIMS products can also capture a wide range of analytical data, including calculated results, as well as supporting data such as raw data values and sample preparation parameters. In short, a LIMS is certainly a tool that provides functionality for the laboratory analyst ‘at the bench’ and many thousands of LIMS do this on a daily basis. If your LIMS is not providing this capability then it may be it due to the reasons described in the section above.

An ELN has the potential to add value in several ways. Firstly, it may be that it enables the capture of a wider variety of data than the LIMS, or, it may be more convenient to capture laboratory data using an ELN interface. An ELN product may therefore make it possible to capture all data associated with an analytical process including notes, pictures, data tables and so on that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to do with the LIMS. Some ELNs can also aid operators by presenting step-wise instructions from an electronic copy of a test method/SOP as an analytical procedure is executed. Therefore, the opportunity to ‘go paperless’ is perhaps more achievable than with just LIMS alone. Furthermore, it may be easier to set-up a ‘template’ to capture data from an analytical process using an ELN rather than LIMS. For example, the ELN template may be ‘experiment-centric’ in a research environment, or ‘procedurecentric’ for QC work.The ELN may provide a familiar spreadsheet-style interface that makes the experiment or method setup and visual layout much easier for the end-user, compared to the alternative of setting up forms in LIMS – something that is usually a job for the LIMS system administrator. Reducing dependency on the system administrator to do all the setup will also deliver a more responsive productivity tool for the end-user community.

ELN products may also make automated instrument data capture easier to set up. As noted above, LIMS products have long provided the capability to connect laboratory instruments and automate calculations.However, the advantage of ELN products is that the instrument data capture process, and any associated calculations, can take place more readily in the context of an experiment or procedure, as well as offering the potential to capture all the data generated by the instrument. In other words, from an end-user’s point of view, the automated capture of instrument data will be seamlessly integrated into the experiment/method as opposed to being done by a LIMS ‘background’ task, or what might otherwise be considered a disconnected process. An ELN may therefore provide a more convenient, intuitive instrument interface for the end-user. 

How Well Can LIMS Integrate With ELN?

The advantages of using an ELN with a LIMS discussed above become weakened if the integration between both systems is limited and/or ‘clumsy’. It may even deliver a more difficult experience for the end-user, causing them to have to work in two different environments to get their daily work done. Furthermore, setup work may be significantly complicated if ‘static’ data (for example, test names, units, user profiles, calculation formulae and instrument IDs) are already set up in LIMS and has to be re-entered into ELN and kept synchronised. Characteristics of a good LIMS-ELN integration are:

  • The end-user only needs to log into one system; that is, the user profile is shared between the LIMS and ELN. This will allow the user to freely move between LIMS and ELN as if they were one
  • The interface between the LIMS and ELN should be seamless.Of course, some aspects of the interface in ELN will be different to LIMS, but overall it is desirable if the look and feel are similar.This covers areas such as terminology (including local language if applicable), menu structure and help libraries.This will reduce training overhead and will improve the overall user experience
  • It should be straightforward to share information between the systems. For example, when working in ELN it should be possible to browse a list of (valid) instruments, standards and reagents from LIMS. It should also be possible to review lists of pending
  • samples and tests. Similarly, when working in LIMS, it should be possible to review the status of ELN experiments/ procedures and generate reports/charts combining data input into LIMS and ELN. This integration should be flexible so that it does not have to be designed (or programmed) up-front. Clearly, over the lifetime of the LIMS and ELN, the need to share data will be subject to change and so it is important that interchange between the two system is, and remains, configurable by the customer
  • The systems should be responsive and able to react in real-time. One of the important benefits of an automated system is that actions resulting from events can be automated. For example, an alert may need to be generated when a result is entered outside a predefined highlow limit or specification, followed by other actions such as an out of specification (OOS) investigation procedure. It will clearly be less efficient for an organisation if there is a delay between results being entered into an ELN and actions being initiated in LIMS.This might occur, for example, if the ELN cannot read information from LIMS in realtime, or if there is a delay in the data being sent back to LIMS
  • Regulatory compliance is a major consideration when introducing any new software into an organisation and LIMS/ELN implementations are normally subject to much scrutiny by QA departments. LIMS and ELN are intimately involved in the capture and processing of laboratory data and if the introduction of an ELN helps improve data capture and support a ‘paperless’ environment, then this will be an important step forward for any laboratory. LIMS and ELN integration should therefore improve compliance, not increase risk of non-compliance. Ideally, LIMS and ELN integration should be straightforward to administer from a regulatory point of view with common tools to control user access, application of electronic signatures and auditing of data

Conclusion

LIMS are proven software applications that have been delivering benefits to laboratories for over 25 years.They provide a valuable, structured way to manage laboratory data. Most modern commercial LIMS provide much more than earlier generation LIMS and it is important to keep track of what your LIMS is capable of providing, which may be surprisingly more than it is currently used for. ELN products have the potential to provide added flexibility and value to a laboratory already using LIMS. However, before embarking on an ELN project, it is important to evaluate the situation carefully and keep an open mind about whether or not the functionality can only be provided by a new ELN, or whether it can or should be provided by LIMS. Furthermore, an integrated LIMS and ELN solution should deliver an enhanced experience for the end-user and a system that is not overly complicated to administer.Overall, an integrated LIMS and ELN solution can deliver an exciting new level of function to a laboratory, but the value of introducing an ELN to a laboratory already using a LIMS needs to be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis.


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Nick Townsend is Director of Life Sciences for LabWare Europe and has worked in the LIMS industry for over 28 years. A Biochemistry graduate, he first became interested in the application of computers in the laboratory while working on the bench in a major pharmaceutical company. Over the years, Nick has accumulated wide-ranging experience of developing, implementing and selling laboratory software on an international basis.
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Nick Townsend
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