Equipment Sharing in Industry and Academia
In Industrial Drug Discovery, Open Access LC/MS systems for reaction monitoring and compound QC have been the norm for around 20 years to support Medicinal Chemists. The advantage of Open Access or "Walk-Up" instruments is that the user interface is so simple and it greatly restricts and controls what the user can do. It stops them "dabbling" with the software and inadvertently changing things and there is no need for them to learn how to use the system which would be unrealistic anyhow. The number of options presented to the user is minimal. Typically they just get to choose between a handful of methods (maybe only 2 with different pH). Everything else is fixed. They give the sample a name (e.g. their book number), optionally can enter molecular weight(s) of interest, they are directed where to place their sample in the autosampler and that's it. Their log-in name tells the system where to direct output. This way, a large department of chemists have access to a single machine in a very controlled fashion resulting in far greater system uptime. They can also see the status of individual instruments and queue lengths via the company intranet. Data is generally returned via email and can be opened in an appropriate browser or 3rd party platform-independent software package. Systems may either be located in Chemistry Labs or in a central Analytical facility. Even if the latter, in at least one large pharma company, Chemists still don’t need to leave their laboratory as samples are delivered around the building via a pneumatically driven network of tubing directly into the instrument selected by the system (see comments below). Latterly, many companies have moved HPLC purification onto an OA platform especially where mass spec – directed technology is taken advantage of. For chiral separations, the industry standard technique for analysis and purification is Supercritical Fluid Chromatography (SFC), although here there is greater reluctance to go the same way while reliability concerns remain, largely around CO2 delivery.
Similarly, for structural elucidation, open access to NMR machines for the faster, routine techniques is provided during core hours with more specialised techniques requiring greater instrument time being deferred to an overnight queue.
Busy ADME (in vitro Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism and Excretion) or DMPK (in vivo Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics) Departments may also see the efficiencies that can be gained by making LC/MS/MS (Triple Quad or Q-ToF instruments) available in a similar fashion.
Clearly, most of the foregoing only really applies to single organisations above a certain size. Smaller organisations, however, may benefit from the availability of communal equipment if they are located in one of several Science Parks or Incubators that are increasingly making such facilities available in the UK. For example, at BioHub Alderley Park, analytical equipment including HPLC, MS and NMR (700 and 500MHz) is available and, in addition, state of the art imaging is provided by EM Analytical, a DAC Network Company, on an Open Access basis while at BioCity, Nottingham, in addition to MS and NMR, there is more mundane equipment available such as rotary evaporators and centrifuges. Open Access software may be used to track sample numbers for billing purposes. Finally, to illustrate that it is not just analytical or chemistry equipment that may be on offer, GE Healthcare operate a “Life Sciences Technology Laboratory” at the Stevenage Biocatalyst (SBC) where tenant companies can access the company’s latest tools and technologies for such things as cell culture and analysis, protein purification and interaction studies, and bioprocessing research. Equipment includes AKTA Avant and Prime protein chromatography systems; Biacore T200 and 8K SPR (Surface Plasmon Resonance) systems; an IN Cell system for cell imaging and a fluorescence imager for gels. Hence, the range of equipment available is tailored to the needs of the majority of the tenants of the SBC. Availability of equipment in this way may be a significant factor for a start-up when looking for a home or, indeed, when they look to move on hopefully to larger premises.
The Equipment Project at Cambridge University provides similar support to external organisations by listing a number of facilities and individual items of equipment that may be suitable for use by industrial and commercial entities as well as by University staff and students. Equipment can be used unsupervised providing the appropriate training is in place, used with the supervision of a laboratory manager or technician, or again, external samples may be submitted for analysis and the results returned. Details of equipment are available via an internal database search engine, with the majority being publicly searchable via the National Equipment Portal (http://equipment.data.ac.uk/).
It is a strategic aim of the University to encourage and ensure the use of shared facilities to support and facilitate greater collaboration and advancement of scientific research. Over 60 Small Research Facilities have been developed across the University that permit access to University staff and students as well as external clients who are interested in collaborating or who wish to use the services provided as part of their R&D strategy. These facilities, along with 3000 individual items of equipment, appear on the University’s equipment sharing database that acts as a conduit to collaboration by providing up to date information on each item of equipment and the contact details of the laboratory and equipment manager.
If any of the issues discussed in this article are of interest to you, please feel free to contact me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.