July 17, 2021

LifeSciences in the Cloud

Do you wish to carry out complex life science experiments but do not have the equipment to do so? Or even otherwise, if you want to catch a preview of the next big thing in technology, you should know about cloud based Life Science. But what is the "Cloud" that we are talking about?

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past ten years, it is very unlikely that you have not heard of Cloud Computing. Originally popularised by Amazon AWS and then picked up by Google Compute, Microsoft Azure and host of other companies, cloud computing is a business that allows individuals and organisations to do away with owning computing hardware. Instead they use computers located at vendor premises and pay only for the time that they use it.

In fact, individuals who use GMail, Hotmail, Google Docs, Google Sheets or even the new Office 365 are actually using a cloud service. All that they have on their laptop or phone is a web browser - Chrome, Mozilla, Edge etc., while their documents are being stored and processed at a distant computer located on the cloud vendor premises to which they are connected over the internet. At a corporate level, companies are doing away with large computers - running business applications like SAP or hosting relational databases -  on their premises and using computers located at cloud vendor premises. Here company employees use a browser or a specialised client software to connect to computers at vendor premises. In the case of a public cloud, this connection is over the public internet but in case there are security issues, some companies prefer a private cloud where the connection is made over secure, private networks provided by telecom operators. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) over public internet is also a valid mechanism for accessing private clouds.

Irrespective of whether the user is an individual or a corporation, or whether they are using a public or a private cloud, the key principle of cloud computing is that the hardware is owned, operated and located at vendor premises and the user pays to, well, just use it. Depending on the nature of the contract between the user and vendor, the price of the service, when not free, is based either on the kind of hardware and software that is used or the number of transactions processed. The key value proposition that cloud computing brings to the table is that the user can 'order' a machine, use it just for as long as they need to and then dispose it of very easily without having to bear the capital cost or the cost of technicians who manage it. This business model, known as Infrastructure-as-a-Service, has become the most popular way of doing business in the corporate world, except of course for highly secretive operations and those that involve national security.

Frankly, cloud computing is old news. Perhaps little more interesting than automobile manufacturing, petroleum refining in terms of novelty. What is really novel and interesting is when we transfer the concept of the cloud from the world of computing to that of laboratory based life sciences.

Life sciences is the sizzling new field that is changing the world today. Many corporates are investing in projects for drug discovery, genetic engineering and myriads of other projects based on the bio and life sciences. But all such research needs huge, complex laboratories with very expensive instruments. While big pharma and life science companies with deep pockets can fund the huge capital expenditure required to set up these labs, smaller companies and universities are at a deep disadvantage here. Research is not possible without these labs and such labs are not possible without huge capital expenditure.

This is where the cloud steps in.

Emerald Cloud Lab and Strateos are two of a new breed of cloud companies (like the Amazon of old) who have invested in huge, state-of-the-art laboratories and 'rent' out the same to anyone who subscribes to their service, for a fee in a manner that is analogous to traditional cloud computing.

How does it work? 

The cloud provider has a stack of virtually all kinds of high end equipment and a stock of inorganic and organic consumable materials -- chemicals etc.,  that are usually found in any such laboratory. Whatever consumables are not in stock can of course be ordered and obtained through standard eCommerce channels. 

Scientists who subscribe to this cloud lab can set up experiments on their laptop using client software. This is very similar to writing software programs : for example, add  5 gm of A to 3 ml of B and stir for 10 mins. Then heat for 30 mins, then add 2 mg of C and separate the precipitate from the fluid. Measure the weight of the precipitate and then add 3 ml of D and measure the quantity of gas produced [... and so on.] Once this experiment is ready, that is the program has been written, it is uploaded into the cloud lab and then the machines take over. Most of the lab machines are highly automated or are connected by arms, actuators, conveyor belts, sensors and other modern robotic devices that are found in any automated factory today. The experiment is carried out, the results are noted, stored and sent back to the scientist who devised the experiment and requested that it be executed. And of course there is a bill for the use of the consumable chemicals and for the use of the specific machine that is debited from the account of the organisation that has signed up for this service.

Readers who have a more intimate knowledge of the work done in life science labs would understand that a platform like this is particularly helpful for performing high throughput experiments. Researchers can design compound libraries, prepare samples and assay plates, perform measurements, acquire and process experimental data, all with the click of a cursor. They can then run multiple seamless workflows in parallel and in fact can even troubleshoot their experiments remotely!

The brilliance of this model is no different from the brilliance of the traditional cloud computing model -- end users do not have to incur any capital expenditure or have an army of technicians to manage the equipment and carry out experiments. Watch this video.

There are two ways in which this fascinating technology can be used in the academic and corporate world. 

  • First, small companies and universities that cannot afford the capital expenditure for complex equipment can easily sign on for such services and start using equipment that they never had access to in the past. 
  • But even large pharma and life science companies, who can afford such equipment can centralise their labs at one location and use a private cloud to allow its employees who can be located in any part of the world to use the same. The pandemic has made work-from-home acceptable to many corporates and using cloud labs will allow even scientists, who traditionally need to work in labs, the opportunity to work from home and allow corporates to seek out the best talent from any part of the world.
In fact, for both small and large companies, the availability of such a robotic, cloud platform can vastly accelerate the process and improve the repeatability of conducting physical experiments that are currently done by individuals in their own personal laboratories.

How I hope that some Indian corporates -- who are notorious for never taking the lead with any new idea or technology -- will understand the immense potential of this new process. For a change, let India lead and not follow the herd.

A more detailed post that claims that Cloud Labs will be the norm is available here.

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