Informatics Rules - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Informatics Rules
How global computer systems helped far-flung research centers work together


Pharmaceutical Executive


The electronic integration of global research at Roche coincided with a spike in discoveries at the company. In 1998, when the GRI projects began, the Roche research pipeline was at a low level. But by 2004, it overflowed with new drug candidates. Although this success is the product of many factors besides informatics, research became more fruitful during a period when global access to data and knowledge increased rapidly.

GRI Strategy Using informatics as a lever to change global research policies was no accident. GRI began as part of the vision of top research management, which set escalating objectives aimed at increasing the sophistication of informatics at Roche:
1. Improve laboratory data collection and workflow
2. Enable global information sharing via Web-based systems
3. Make information actionable
4. Enable global knowledge sharing
5. Enable leveraged prediction.

Every year, Roche selects and sponsors informatics projects to meet these objectives, from the most basic projects at level 1 to state-of-the-art implementations at level 5. In the first years of GRI history, the project portfolio emphasized level-1 and level-2 systems to build a firm informatics foundation and encourage participation by the research community. The most fundamental informatics systems became company-wide institutions that could demand global allegiance.

One of them—IRCI, for Integrated Roche Chemical Information—is a global, Web-based system for registering and keeping account of Roche experimental compounds. Today, its use throughout Roche is compulsory. IRCI replaced several local registration systems and engendered a universal numbering scheme for experimental compounds that uniquely identifies each batch synthesized. Rodin, another key system for global information sharing that was launched, like IRCI, in 2000, gave researchers their first look at assay results from other Roche sites.

A few basic principles have guided GRI's selection and management of projects:

Limit research informatics projects to one year GRI established this principle to help teams focus on the project deliverables. GRI meets with research leaders near the end of each year to choose the next year's project portfolio—the set of proposed research informatics projects that the organization will fund. Work on the projects spans the following year. Naturally, some efforts in informatics (such as developing a large software system) require more than a year to complete. In these cases, they break down the work into multiple, sequential projects; thus, the team begins work anew each year on the next set of deliverables.

Design tools for scalability and compatibility Informatics is a discipline that embraces rapid technological change. Roche cannot afford to discard systems every year, so GRI builds informatics products to last.

Consider two global information-sharing systems: GeneIndex, which gives users access to all available information (internal and public) on genes, and the previously mentioned Rodin, a system for sharing assay results and project information. Both undergo frequent and substantial upgrades in scope and capacity, and each has changed in look and feel. Nevertheless, all the changes represent planned remodeling, not rebuilding. As the systems evolve, their designers continue to pursue the original goals: great flexibility in the quantity and types of data the systems can handle and the number of data repositories they can tap.

Embrace generic informatics solutions Although many research processes demand customized informatics support, others—for example, most types of biological screening assays—are well-served by cost-cutting generic software tools. Because these assays exhibit common patterns in their lab procedures, GRI sought a generic solution to the problem of capturing and managing the large volumes of data they generate. GRI selected ActivityBase by IDBS as the global standard-workflow application for biological screening. Likewise, Roche core groups, which perform centralized services, such as creating specialized cell lines or synthesizing chemical building blocks, rely on generic informatics solutions. Finding generic solutions minimizes system development and maintenance costs and yields savings that go toward innovative tools in other areas of drug discovery.

The Research-GRI Dynamic Initially, GRI introduced the research community to informatics tools that made global information sharing a reality. Given this new capability, researchers moved to increase the quantity and quality of the information they shared. For the first time at Roche, the research community adopted global standards that fostered collaboration with colleagues worldwide. The history of Rodin illustrates this dynamic.


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