Imagine this scenario. A grad student is studying the role of protein X in a novel cancer signalling pathway. She plans to knock down and over-express protein X in rats, and then measure the expression levels of downstream effectors in the target tissue. For this experiment, she will need:
1. siRNA to knockdown protein X
2. Expression vectors to express siRNA in the rat
3. Recombinant protein X to inject into the rat
4. Antibodies to measure the expression of downstream effectors
Simply go online to buy them, and off she goes with her experiment. Easy. Right?
Unfortunately, purchasing biological reagents is far from a simple process. While the procurement procedure differs from lab to lab, all scientists face several common pain points when purchasing biological reagents. In this article, we’ll outline the typical procurement process for biological reagents, address the issues scientists face at each step, and discuss potential solutions.
(See our summary of tools at the end of the article!)
Massive Amount of Publications Makes Product Selection Overwhelming
The published literature is the go-to product catalog for all scientists when buying biological reagents. This is because the nature of biological reagents is inherently variable depending on the context in which they were applied, and scientists need to know whether a particular reagent has been shown to work previously in someone else’s lab.
Given the increasingly more stringent funding status in academic research, scientists cannot afford to simply buy the first product they found on generic search engines and risk the reagent not working to jeopardize the experiment, as the cost of an experiment could easily be in the range of thousands of dollars, taking into account the cost of reagents, equipment, and labor.
However, the data overload associated with the age of digital publishing makes the literature search for biological reagents an overwhelming task. For example, the search for “BDNF recombinant protein” on PubMed returns 656 papers. As a result, any initiative to help scientist identify the use of biological reagents in the literature would be a much needed effort. In addition to our work at BenchSci, other great initiatives include the Resource Identification Portal for antibodies and siRNAmod for siRNA.
Fragmented Market Hinders Product Sourcing
If the desired reagent could not be found in the literature, the most common alternative that scientists turn to is generic search engines such as Google. However, the number of companies that offer biological reagents ranges from over 15 for expression vectors to over 200 for antibodies. As a result of such market fragmentation, simply identifying where to purchase a particular reagent can be a laborious process for scientists. In addition, scientists are becoming more price-sensitive due to the lack of research funding, and the price of a reagent would be the key determinant for their purchasing decision if they had to take the risk of testing a biological reagent themselves.
For these reasons, there need to be channels for scientists to perform a comprehensive comparison of vendors offering the same reagent based on price and, if available, customer reviews. A couple of potential solutions would be Biocompare, an extensive database listing a wide range of biological reagents, and LabSpend, a search engine that generates the prices offered by multiple vendors for a single reagent. Alternatively, online forums such as ResearchGate are also an ideal channel to consult fellow scientists regarding reagent use.
Lab Managers Are Buried by Independent Invoices
When a scientist finally decides which biological reagent to purchase, the struggle doesn’t stop there. For most academic labs, all purchasing orders have to be put through the lab manager, who then manages all the invoices to keep track of the lab’s expenses, which needs to be kept on a clear record as the lab’s funding almost always came from a public source. In order to get the best deals for their lab, most lab managers wait until several requests have been put in and then bulk order to save on shipping fees or to negotiate for discount. Consequently, there is often a delay of days to weeks between the time a purchasing order was placed and the start of an experiment. This in turn adds another layer of complexity in experiment planning, and can sometimes lead to days of inactivity.
Scientists should be able to place an order for the reagent they need in a more streamlined manner, much the way we purchase everyday commodities on e-commerce websites such as Amazon. A recently developed solution to this problem is Quartzy, an electronic inventory management system that allows all members of the lab to place and keep track of orders via a unified system on an as-needed basis.
Outdated Data Management System Reduces Repurchasing
So a scientist has gone through all the trouble described previously, tested a biological reagent and confirmed that it works in a specific context. If someone else in the same lab needs the same reagent, they can skip the research and simply buy the same product, right? Unfortunately, that might not be the case.
As most scientists still keep their data in a physical lab notebook (or in their heads!), chances are members of the same lab have no idea which reagent has been tested by whom. Instead, the data supporting the use of a biological reagent should be shared within a lab as they are generated, which fortunately can be done with the use of electronic lab notebooks such as LabFolder or LabGuru.
The global market for biological reagents is estimated to be $77.6 billion for 2018, with a compound annual growth rate of 8.6% (BCC Research, 2014), suggesting that there is a huge and growing need for these products. At the same time, it also means that there is a large pool of scientists who are constantly dealing with the issues described in this article whenever they need to purchase biological reagents. Fortunately, novel solutions have started to emerge to tackle the issues in order to aid scientists on their path to groundbreaking biomedical discoveries.
Electronic Lab Research Tools Summary
BenchSci is a reagent intelligence platform that transforms published data into experiment-specific recommendations to reduce time, money and uncertainty in planning materials and methods. Unlike PubMed, Google Scholar, reagent directories and vendors, BenchSci uses machine learning to decode open- and closed-access data and present published figures with actionable insights.
Biocompare is a resource for up-to-date product information, product reviews, and new technologies for life scientists. Biocompare combines an in-depth knowledge of life science products and new technologies with the power of the Internet to offer scientists the most dynamic, relevant, and innovative media-based marketplace for life science information.
Provides pricing insights for lab supplies and chemicals. Find vendors, compare prices, view analytics on your lab's purchasing, and get better pricing on products you've already purchased.
The Resource Identification Portal was created in support of the Resource Identification Initiative. The portal offers a central location for obtaining and exploring Research Resource Identifiers (RRIDs) - persistent and unique identifiers for referencing a research resource. RRIDs use established community identifiers where they exist, and are cross-referenced in their system where more than one identifier exists for a single resource.
siRNAmod is a manually curated database of experimentally validated chemically modified siRNAs. Their database contains a total of 4894 chemically modified-siRNA sequences, comprising 128 unique chemical modifications on different positions with various permutations and combinations. It incorporates important information on siRNA sequence, chemical modification, their number and respective position, structure, simplified molecular input line entry system canonical (SMILES), efficacy of modified siRNA, target gene, cell line, experimental methods, and references
Quartzy is an online lab management platform and scientific research supply marketplace. Quartzy features include collaborative order requests and supply tracking for labs and research groups, inventory management tools, and product quotes for price comparisons.
HappiLabs provides a variety of services to help scientists and biotech labs be better with finance and lab operations. Their virtual lab manager helps scientists make informed purchasing decisions about lab supplies and all the companies who sell them.
LabFolder is an electronic lab notebook that enables researchers to record findings and make new discoveries. By reinventing the traditional paper lab notebook, their productivity and collaboration platform makes it easier to create, find, share, discuss, and validate research data as a team.
Labguru is a secure, web-based platform to record and manage your laboratory data in one place. The electronic laboratory notebook helps you to monitor research progress and to increase its output. Scientists can design experiments and workflows with the ELN, capture structured and unstructured data, manage projects, and share their work from one intuitive user interface.
ResearchGate is a social networking site for scientists and researchers to share papers, ask and answer questions, and find collaborators.
Editor's note: Are there any additional electronic resources that you found useful in the lab? Let us know in the comments below and we'll update our list of tools!