ANALYSIS & OPINION

Internet interactions boost better biology

A web-based tool to promote the sharing of research reagents and information can help tackle the crisis in reproducibility in life-science research, argues Isobel Atkin.

While physicists can calibrate their instruments to a high degree of accuracy and chemists can specify precisely the purity of their laboratory reagents, biologists are dependent on living systems to produce the reagents they use in their research.

Research reagents – such as antibodies, mice and cell lines – are the cornerstones of basic research in the life sciences. But living systems are so inherently complex that it is difficult to control all the variables and, thus, for biologists to be confident of the purity of the basic materials used in their research.

A couple of years ago, PLoS Biology reported that difficulties with basic materials were the largest factor when biologists failed to reproduce other experiments, accounting for about 36 per cent of the reproducibility problems – ahead of study design and data-analysis issues. Reproducibility in the life sciences is close to crisis point: in 2016, Nature found that more than 70 per cent of 1,576 researchers had tried and failed to reproduce another scientist's experiments.

Yet reproducibility is the hallmark of science.

Now a British technology-transfer organisation, Ximbio, is addressing the issue by encouraging researchers and their institutes’ technology-transfer offices to upload their reagents virtually, to its website. This acts as a portal, through which researchers can share life-science reagents and information necessary to their work.

This is not just some well-meaning internet site, however. By adding its own value to the site, Ximbio has transformed it into a tool that can help to assist and unify the life-science community. 

Ximbio is the world’s largest, non-profit technology-transfer organisation dedicated exclusively to life-science research reagents. Other tech transfer offices generally work on different technology types and fields of use. Ximbio is exclusively focused on life science research reagents.

One reason for this is that the company’s staff gets out of the office. They talk to researchers and technology-transfer personnel, to identify material that may have been put aside in a research group's freezer, its potential neglected as new lines of research are pursued. This avoids other researchers having to recreate the reagent in their own laboratories, with all the potential for unexpected variability that entails, when they try to extend the original work.

It is, of course, a waste of time and money for other laboratories to try to recreate the original research reagents if they still exist. If they do try – but the variability of living systems means they cannot exactly replicate the original research tools – they may not succeed in extending the original research. So the waste of time and effort is two-fold.

Information and quality control (QC) is a second aspect of Ximbio’s added value. It has a review system operating a ‘sharing’ approach to QC; researchers can post data on the website to demonstrate the applications where research tools have worked. The site is curated, so if a tool does not work in a particular application, the information on the site is duly updated.

Thirdly, unlike the majority of tech transfer organisations, Ximbio physically stores, maintains and manufactures research reagents.  So the online offering can be located in its physical form when required.

Of course, commercial companies also offer tools for the life sciences, and they run extensive quality control programmes as part of their business. Ximbio is distinctive because it focuses on research tools that are scientifically important, and not always of obvious or immediate commercial interest. It can do so because it was set up by a UK research charity, not a commercial company; it originated from Cancer Research Technology, the development and commercialisation arm of Cancer Research UK.

However, Ximbio does act as a marketplace for scientists if they want to take advantage of the commercial potential of their research tools. Life-science companies can use Ximbio to source new products for their catalogues – the straightforward commercialisation process helps researchers and commercial companies navigate what could otherwise be a complex procedure. Even for those who are not interested in commercial opportunities, the fact that each reagent is linked to its originator helps raise the profile of a scientist’s research.

Most of these research tools were created using taxpayers’ or charitable money. By harnessing the latest digital technology to broaden the range of tools available to biologists globally, Ximbio is playing a significant part in supporting and advancing research in the life sciences.

Dr Isobel Atkin is the senior business development manager at Ximbio.

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