How can core facilities better connect with the researchers who need them?

April 29, 2012 | Posted by Team in Outsourcing Trends |

The following article appeared in the “Solutions” section of the 2012 ABRF Communications magazine, distributed that the 2012 ABRF conference in Orlando, FL.  

A View from the Core

When Dr. Todd Waldman MD PhD, made his ground-breaking discovery into the genetic basis for glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) brain tumors, he did so through the help of core facilities. GBM is the most common and deadly form of primary brain tumor; it was infamously responsible for the death of Senator Edward Kennedy in 2009. Dr. Waldman’s molecular oncology group at Georgetown University discovered that multiple GBM cell lines have mutations in the STAG2 gene, which cause chromosomal instability during cell division. To explore the clinical relevance of his findings, Dr. Waldman turned to the Lombardi Cancer Center Histopathology and Tissue Shared Resource (HTSR). The HTSR stained multiple tissue microarrays containing primary GBM and Ewing’s carcinoma samples for STAG2, and confirmed that the protein was indeed missing in many primary tumors. These results were a critical component of the paper published by Waldman and colleagues in Science last year. (Learn more about how the HTSR helped Dr. Waldman and his colleagues here).

Projects like Dr. Waldman’s are at the heart of a core facility’s mission, namely to provide investigators with the specialized resources and expertise they need to produce the best possible scientific output. As a primary resource for human patient tissues and histopathology expertise, the core was able to give the study its translational focus, demonstrating the clinical significance of Dr. Waldman’s findings. HTSR has a highly skilled and experienced staff that handles approximately 2000 requests for services each year, providing a degree of expertise and professionalism that would be hard to match by an individual researcher attempting to build up the necessary techniques in their own lab.

And yet, core facilities often remain under-utilized. HTSR Co-Director Dr. Deborah Berry PhD realized that despite internal demand, there were times when the facility was not as busy as it could have been. In short, they had excess capacity that they could be using to fuel translational research beyond the borders of their institute.  Dr. Berry realized that researchers from other institutes could greatly benefit from the resources and expertise she and her colleagues could provide.  But, how could she reach them?

The problem of external marketing is one that is increasingly faced by core facilities that are trying to ensure optimal use of their services, according to Susanna Perkins, Administrative Manager in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She treats each of the 43 core facilities that fall under her operational management as a small nonprofit company and brings her private sector business experience to the challenge of helping each facility raise the internal and external awareness of its services and capabilities. (Learn more about Susanna Perkins’ approach to core facilities management here). But the standard tools of marketing, like web site search engine optimization, trade show presence and advertising, can only go so far in allowing potential users to find, understand and request services.

A View from the Bench

The frustrations of a potential user trying to find the right experimental service were all too familiar to Dr. Elizabeth Iorns PhD, co-founder of Science Exchange.  Dr. Iorns did her doctoral work at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, before pursuing her postdoctoral research on breast cancer metastases at the University of Miami.  Although a common and tragic consequence of breast cancer in women, metastatic progression has been remarkably difficult to reproduce in mouse models.  By injecting human breast cancer cells into the mammary gland of a recently developed highly immunodeficient strain of mice, however, Dr. Iorns was able to demonstrate widespread macro-metastases.

To study the mechanisms at work in this model, Dr. Iorns used the fact that the cancer cells were human in origin whereas the hosts were mice to simultaneously analyze the gene expression profiles of the tumor cells as compared to their microenvironment, both in the primary tumor and in metastatic lesions. To follow up on intriguing gene expression differences (eventually published here), Dr. Iorns wanted to use tissue microarray analysis of the host mouse tissue at metastatic lesions, but she knew she lacked the expertise to conduct those studies herself and was unable to find the resources she needed at the University of Miami.

After exhausting her personal network of collaborators, Dr. Iorns began to look externally to find someone to help her pursue these tantalizing results.  A single core facility website may nicely summarize the work done at that particular facility, but what happens when you need to search through dozens of them, each with their own unique display of selected information, to find what you need? What followed for Dr. Iorns was an entirely frustrating process of googling key words to find scientific service providers with the right expertise, and then emailing and calling dozens of labs to understand their outsourcing process, pricing schedules and turnaround times.  And after gathering all this information, she was still left trying to compare and evaluate different providers without any way to assess the user experience or quality of service. To add insult to injury, if she found a provider she wanted to work with, she had to go through the time consuming and difficult process of contacting the University of Miami purchasing department to approve each individual transaction with each core facility because the facilities were not approved vendors in the University of Miami purchasing system. The under-utilization of core facilities seemed to in turn stem from a lack of available processes for searching, requesting, or purchasing services in a time-effective manner.

The need for a marketplace

Dr. Iorns realized that her own frustrations in finding the core resources she needed to conduct specialized experimental procedures were part of a more general problem, namely the lack of a marketplace for scientific services.

Internet marketplaces have solved the problem of matching consumers with available providers in many domains.  Take, for example, the problem of finding a restaurant.  You have a visiting speaker to take out to dinner on a Friday night – you need a table for 8 at 7 pm.  You could reserve a restaurant well in advance; you could call up individual restaurants around the city to check availability; you could have a relationship with the place down the street that will always fit you in, but your speaker is vegan and the restaurant is a steakhouse.  Or, you could go to OpenTable.com, put in your requirements of time, number of people, part of town, and type of food and voila!  You have all available options immediately presented with menus and prices.  The advantage to the customer is obvious.  The advantage to the restaurant is also obvious.  Supply meets demand, demand increases with transactional ease and everyone wins.

Dr. Iorns wanted to bring the same market efficiency that OpenTable.com brought to restaurant bookings to the world of scientific services. So in 2011 she founded ScienceExchange.com, with the goal of making it easier for researchers to access experimental specialists at core facilities via one integrated marketplace. In a short period of time she has won over a number of fans including Jeff Jordan, the former CEO of OpenTable and now a Partner at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, who is an investor and advisor to Science Exchange.

Researchers looking to access experimental services can visit ScienceExchange.com to search for an experiment type, view and compare providers, and choose a provider to work with. Alternatively, researchers can post an open project and receive estimates from qualified providers. This allows researchers to easily identify the best prices and turnaround times for experimental services, allowing more efficient use of grant money and research time. Science Exchange manages the entire process, providing project management tools such as large data file transfer and an easy payment solution (Science Exchange is an approved vendor within institutional eProcurement systems).

Core facilities and commercial suppliers who provide experimental services get a free, easy-to-use facility page listing the experimental services they offer, and are automatically notified when a researcher requests a service, or a relevant open project is posted. Science Exchange makes it easy to work with internal and external researchers through project management tools, compliance assistance and guaranteed payment within 30 days of experimental completion.

Science Exchange is free for providers, with over 1,000 providers from across the globe already offering over 500 experimental services. Researchers requesting services are charged a nominal one-time fee (less than 5%) per transaction at the time of purchase. This is added automatically to the provider’s estimate and is the price the researcher sees. The pricing is entirely transparent, with no hidden costs or fees.

The Bigger Solution

This article began with the question:  How can core facilities better connect with the researchers who need them?  Dr. Berry, who was looking for ways to expand the user-base for Lombardi Cancer Center’s HTSR, listed her services on Science Exchange and has now concluded multiple transactions on the site, including work with Dr. Iorns on her mouse model of breast cancer metastases. Dr. Berry helped Dr. Iorns identify the microarray signature in her mice as that of myeloid immune cells, and then used histological and immunohistochemical techniques to reveal a new population of immature myeloid immune cells that infiltrate primary tumors. Dr. Iorns has gone on to show that these myeloid cells are highly pro-metastatic and are essential to the metastatic process observed in her mouse model.  Dr. Iorns is currently preparing a manuscript detailing these results, on which Dr. Berry is a coauthor.

In the six months that Science Exchange has been in operation, numerous case studies point to its increasing importance and positive impact on individual investigators and service providers:

  • A University of Miami investigator was able to get results from a complex microRNA profiling project turned around within 3 days – much faster than they could have done using their internal core facility – ensuring that the results could be included in an important grant application with a pressing timeline.
  • A University of Southern California researcher was able to access a specialized core facility to get her histology experiment completed for less than half of the cost of the service provider she was using – ensuring that her critical grant dollars were most effectively applied.
  • A Stanford University scientist was able to find a partner through Science Exchange to help develop a new method for analyzing mass spectrometry data – fundamentally changing the way a broader research program was being conducted.

But, the larger question that we are all trying to solve is: How do we use increasingly scarce funding dollars to do the most cost-efficient, reliable and reproducible science that we can?  Core facilities are built on the fundamental concept of scientific specialization. No single scientist can master all the techniques or buy all the equipment necessary to conduct a state-of-the-art scientific inquiry.  No single university can provide all the core facility services that an investigator may need. Specialization is an accepted mode of solving this problem.

And yet, too often, for reasons based on market inefficiency, misaligned incentives, and antiquated thinking, researchers are forced to spend time trying to be a ‘jacks of all trades,’ even when experts with a honed, highly reproducible system are available and willing to carry out the experiment very cost effectively.  The result is a detriment to the progress of science.

Even though Dr. Iorns eventually found and worked with Dr. Berry and the Lombardi Cancer Center HTSR through the fledgling Science Exchange site, she knows that she expended unnecessary time, money and energy “re-inventing the wheel” by learning the hard way how to work with myeloid cell populations, for want of the right collaborator or service provider with the right expertise at the right time.

By creating a marketplace to share specialized services, Science Exchange hopes to transform and accelerate the process of scientific discovery in new and unexpected ways. Dr. Iorns imagines that, with the proper incentives, the concept of specialization will continue to become ingrained in the scientific culture, such that the lines may well blur over time between “customer,” “collaborator, and “service provider” on Science Exchange and in the scientific enterprise overall.  As Dr. Stephen Byers PhD, Director of the Lombardi Cancer Center Shared Resources, points out, individual core facilities are coming under increasing pressures to reduce costs and bring in outside revenues. Thankfully, as the investment required for cutting-edge equipment and expertise increases, the opportunities for connecting core facilities with new customer bases is also increasing, paving the way for core facilities to become even more valuable as centers of scientific excellence, not just across their institutes, but across the nation and even across the globe.

 

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