Why do we use more advanced monitoring tools in our daily lives than we do in biomedical research?
Every scientist knows that discoveries from biomedical research are useless if they cannot be replicated. Yet, in a recent survey by Nature, 70% of researchers indicated that they have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments. That’s an astonishing number, especially if you think of the billions of euros that are then being wasted.
Back in 2011, I was running a biotech startup that was involved in a European project to filter stem cells from umbilical cord blood, and then expand them to high numbers while suppressing the differentiation. We had very promising results.
As part of the project, we were culturing patient stems cells and – as anyone with experience of cell culture knows – they need to be fed sugar and nutrients regularly. Indeed, they need a lot of care and attention, and the normal practice was to check them twice a day – even on weekends.
Unfortunately, one Sunday, the cells were not checked and fed due to a personal emergency of a staff member. Normally this would not pose a big problem – the cells were usually split to a new flask with medium on Monday. However, on that occasion the lack of feeding did cause a problem. The flask grew confluent and the cells were lost, along with much of the work leading up to that point.
We had a disappointing meeting with all project members, and I remember that on the way back I was driving and my colleague was working on his smartphone. I asked what he was doing and he said he just changed the climate control in his house and was now looking at the security camera.
Before we knew it, we had a heated discussion about why in our daily lives we can do so many things with an ‘ordinary’ smart phone – we can monitor basically every step we take – but in the lab we cannot even get a live status update of the condition of our experiment.
Information is power
It struck me that if we had had more information about the wellbeing of our precious cells on that Sunday we could have taken action to avert disaster. How could it be, I wondered, that we have millions of euro worth of equipment in the lab and yet nothing with the kind of sophistication that our smartphones have.
Apparently, we have different expectations of daily consumer technologies and lab equipment. For some reason, we take it for granted that almost all measuring and analytics devices in the lab are big, expensive, difficult to deal with, and mostly offline.
My colleague argued that scientific measuring devices require higher specifications, for example higher magnification or resolution in microscopes. While he made the argument, he noticed that he probably sounded the same as all the people back in 2000 that said that mobile phones could never replace DLSR cameras. Today there are almost no simple to medium advanced DSLR cameras sold anymore. That part of the market now belongs to smartphones with cameras.
Mobile phone cameras are good enough for most situations we meet in daily life, and because everyone has one, we take more images than ever before.
So we concluded that for some reason these advances in technology had not made their way into the design of biological lab equipment, perhaps because the market was not seen as large enough, but that was something I really wanted to change.
We dug into that exciting area and developed new microscopes from the ground up. We completely ignored all the conventions about how you should do it. Instead of trying to perfect what was available, we started with a blank page.
The goal was to develop real-time analytics that allow you to monitor your samples all the time. This led us to develop digital microscopes with integrated image analysis algorithms that operate in the cloud.
In practice, this means cells are constantly monitored or counted by the microscope and any changes are detected by the algorithm. Because all of this data is stored in the cloud, the volume of images recorded is not a big deal and they can be accessed from anywhere.
In that sense, we are much like the analogy with the mobile phone camera and the DSLR. Our devices make live-imaging just as easy and common for biomedical researchers as the mobile phone did with daily life photography.
Of course, the specifications of our device are not the same as that of a super resolution microscope, but because it is so compact and simple to operate, scientists use it much more often than they would if it were a big advanced microscope.
In hindsight, the discussion if mobile phone cameras could ever replace DSLRs or compact cameras was a bit stupid. What started as a sort of gadget is now rather advanced, since the specifications of smartphones are evolving so rapidly. In fact, we believe it’s only a matter of time before the first World Press photo is taken with a smartphone.
The same holds for us. We don’t compete with super microscopes, but our technology is already being used to conduct top-notch science: last month researchers in the Netherlands used this kind of imaging technology to generate data for a paper published in Nature.
So while the goal is to make these kinds of technologies less expensive – and thus more accessible – we know the quality is already very good and will only get better. If the digital revolution that has transformed consumer technologies is anything to go by, we are at the beginning of a very exciting time for biological sciences. We can dramatically increase reproducibility and thus results of biomedical research if only we embrace advanced monitoring tools in our research as much as we do in our daily lives.