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A development of note

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Electronic laboratory notebooks are set to become more widespread, suggests Peter Rees

Pharmaceutical firms have been pondering the value of the electronic laboratory notebooks for around a decade now. Despite having become increasingly reliant on interdepartmental research, high throughput experimentation, and other techniques that might logically have led them down the digital path, they have largely held to their paper counterparts. This year, a tipping point seems to have come. Now they get it. What was once a trickle of electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) installations is about to become a flood, according to a recent survey conducted by software supplier Infotrieve.

In a poll carried out for the company over the summer, more than 90 per cent of those responding had not installed an ELN system, but 36 per cent had plans to purchase one in the next six months. In addition, more than 60 per cent of respondents reported that they had ELN initiatives underway, says Infotrieve. Supporting evidence for this surge in enthusiasm for ditching paper comes from the explosion in the number of conferences and web seminars being organised on the ELNs - although it also underlines the uncertainty about which product to choose.

Pharmaceutical company lawyers, once opposed to ELNs because of lack of any legal precedent in patent litigation cases, have begun to champion their cause. The shift comes courtesy of the US patent office and drug regulators, who have been keen to stress their support for electronic formats, and software suppliers, who have consistently argued that automation could improve the reliability of notebook witnessing. And, over the past 12 months, consultants and market research firms have been bombarding potential customers with strategy papers laying out the economic case for adopting ELNs. At the same time, the software companies themselves have tried to make the argument more compelling than ever. While drug companies and their scientists have been planning their move into ELNs they have been furiously refining, extending and overhauling their software applications.

One of the first clear signs that ELNs were about to take off was the acquisition by Symyx of the private company Intellichem a year ago. Intellichem's iELN, was one of the most successful products on the market, with customers in the top tier of the pharmaceutical industry such as Eli Lilly, Merck, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca. At the time, Symyx described the acquisition as making a good fit with its existing Renaissance software suite. In fact, it says that the merger was driven by requests from customers of both companies, who had suggested ways to link the complementary capabilities of the two products. Now Symyx has announced the latest update to iELN. Version 5.0 of the software was released in September, the first upgrade to the ELN since the two firms merged in November 2004.

The new release of the IntelliChem includes a number of new tools for parallel execution of experiments and enterprise workflow, as well as improved security and performance. For example, the software lets scientists create a set of experiments by varying reagents and reaction conditions allowing them to screen and optimise reactions more quickly.

On the workflow front, IntelliChem iELN is enhanced by allowing administrators to link workflow to a document's use (for example: whether it's a GMP experiment, or a discovery experiment), and to schedule reminder emails to occur after specified time intervals. It also routes documents from the author to other users, including witnesses and groups of users.

Other enhancements in the 5.0 release include the ability to set user and group permission rights at the document, notebook, and repository levels. Additionally, the package has an improved text editor that can create tables, has streamlined symbol entry, and the ability to export documents in Adobe's portable document format.

Similarly another company, Infotrieve, has updated a newly-purchased product. Its ELN is founded on one developed by GenSys, which was bought by Infotrieve in December 2004. The acquisition teamed a content provider with a software supplier - a common theme of several of the partnerships/mergers that have occurred over the past year. Infotrieve has now combined its Life Science Research Center (LSRC) web-based search platform with GenSys' ELN in Version 2.4 of the software. This allows researchers to supplement experimental data entry with information from journals, laboratory product catalogues, gene, and patent databanks.

IDBS, which provides integrated data management, analysis and decision-making software for the life sciences industry, has made an entry into the ELN field after acquiring Deffinity Solutions, a company based in Portsmouth, UK, that provides workflow software. A month after the acquisition of Deffinity's DAT-LAB electronic notebook IDBS launched its E-WorkBook ELN. The company has adopted an open standard component architecture and integrated the ELN with its existing drug discovery data management tools such as ActivityBase. Paul Denny-Gouldson, IDBS product manager for E-WorkBook, says: 'Our starting point with E-WorkBook was that such a system must fit into the R&D scientist's existing routine and systems as seamlessly as possible.'

While some software suppliers have followed the M&A trail to broaden the capabilities of their software, others have looked to co-operative ventures to add to or improve the performance of their in-house ELNs. In particular, several have moved to increase the ability to search chemical structures. For example, in June Waters announced a collaboration with Germany's InfoChem to include that company's chemical reaction search and data collection technology into its eLab Notebook Software. Intelligent searches, including substructure and spectra similarity searches, allow easy retrieval of experimental information based on the analytical results that can then be incorporated into eLab Notebook content.

Pat Martell, director of informatics at Waters, says: 'The InfoChem reaction search engine allows much faster and easier design of synthesis experiments. Our combined solution also allows researchers to access reaction databases that are already used by our customers.' InfoChem's structure and reaction search capabilities are based on the InfoChem Chemistry Cartridge, which is designed to integrate chemical structure and reaction retrieval into relational databases. Full integration of InfoChem's chemical reaction search capability will be included in the next version of eLab Notebook Software.

KineMatik and ChemAxon have formed a strategic partnership under which ChemAxon's Java-based chemistry components have been implemented within KineMatik's eNovator - a web-based electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) integrated with a project and portfolio management system. With the integration of ChemAxon's JChem Cartridge for Oracle and Marvin toolkits, eNovator is able to store, edit, search and retrieve chemical structures and reactions within the ELN and Sample Tracking Module. Tom Cassidy, Kinematik's chief executive, says: 'The performance, quality of support and full API made ChemAxon a natural choice to bring chemical awareness to the eNovator system.'

Meanwhile iAdvantage has teamed up with Saffron Technology to improve data manipulation, analysis and decision-making in its software. The company plans to embed SaffronWeb, Saffron's real-time associative memory software, into its eStudyT, a web-based system that integrates study design, eNotebook design, data collection and data reporting. With this extra capability, eStudy will allow researchers to more quickly and accurately understand associations and correlations within their data, aided by SaffronWeb's ability to search within large, seemingly unrelated data sources and show new associations that may have affected study results. eStudy data queries powered by SaffronWeb will enable researchers to move beyond reporting study data to analysing, learning from, and acting on research information. iAdvantage's eStudy Version 5.0 will include the SaffronWeb component, which is scheduled for imminent release.

Two top software providers, Cambridgesoft and Tripos, are also collaborating to ensure compatibility between their various products. News of the partnership follows Tripos' recent launch of Benchware, a portfolio of laboratory informatics applications. The software suite includes Benchware Notebook 2.0, Tripos's enterprise ELN, and Benchware Dock 1.0, an application enabling laboratory chemists to perform real-time virtual-screening analyses.

One of the most interesting developments of the past 12 months is neither a JV nor a merger. It's the news that informatics veteran Elsevier MDL is building a new ELN for life science companies. The company's existing software, Elan, is a hybrid electronic laboratory notebook system that is meant to supplement a paper notebook. It uses industry-standard technology from Oracle, and MDL, with data entry provided by Microsoft Word. But in March this year, the company said it had launched a dedicated, phased programme to build a robust, scalable, enterprise-strength electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) for the life sciences, for delivery next year.

The ELN will be based on MDL's Isentris discovery informatics platform. The first release will be aimed at drug discovery scientists, particularly in synthetic organic chemistry laboratories, and will provide authentication, sign/witness, audit, notebook record repository and reporting services together with workflow customisation capabilities. It will integrate with MDL structure and reaction registration services, with the MD Discovery Logistics materials management solution, and with both Elsevier MDL and proprietary customer content. The first ELN will also support collaborative searching of hosted content via the DiscoveryGate platform for scientific research. Subsequent releases will provide additional functionality supporting development chemistry and biology.

MDL's move towards a more integrated ELN is a significant one reflecting customer demands for increased interoperability of scientific software. There's a lot at stake - a potential market worth $1.5bn according to market research and consulting firm Atrium. In a study published in April, Atrium estimated that the market was currently growing at around 30 per cent per annum and that the it would see double digit growth for the next four years.

The search for a substantial share in this bonanza is likely to drive further acquisitions in the sector as scientific software suppliers in adjacent markets seek to move into ELNs. Instrument maker Agilent has already signposted a possible purchase of, or partnership with, an ELN supplier.