This is a guest post by Marie Held reporting from the ELRIG conference held last week.
On 3rd-4th October I attended ELRIG’s flagship event, Drug Discovery 2017, in Liverpool. With around 250 participants, it was the largest of the ELRIG conferences yet. The spacious arrangement of the vendors and posters in the exhibition hall was a refreshing change. There was ample space to mingle, chat and discuss equipment on show.
On day one, I attended the Advances in Imaging stream (one of three parallel streams). The keynote lecture by Tony Ng covered a broad range of the spatial scale, stressing the importance of whole body imaging in cancer in combination with investigating the tumour microenvironment down to super resolution imaging of individual molecules. He outlined their attempts in predicting tumour metastasis enabled via immune system hijacking by the cancer cells. An important conclusion was that with the wealth of imaging methods and tracers being developed, we need standardisation and validation across facilities to bring them closer to the clinic, ultimately improving the lives of patients. The imaging methods discussed in the following six talks ranged from man to molecule, focussing on ever smaller features as the day went on. A transpiring theme was the generation of large amounts of data from different techniques and the associated challenge of deriving meaningful information. Machine learning and artificial intelligence were mentioned time and again as being part of that quest. The last scientific presentation, by Charlotte Dodson, focussed on twinkling enzymes, studying the conformational changes of kinases in disease and after treatment via single molecule spectroscopy. Throughout the imaging stream, twelve men contributed to the presentations, vendor snapshots and poster tasters and three women contributed to the stream. The other streams were a bit more gender balanced but only the workshop on Tuesday achieved a 50/50 split.
On the second day, I attended the Lab of the Future workshop presented by SiLA and ELRIG. The general consensus was that the lab of the future (whether you call it Lab 4.0, Industry 4.0 or something else) is an interconnected space in which smart machines are communicating with each other, running fully automated cycles of fabrication, screening and/or testing. Machinery that can be monitored if not controlled remotely via mobile device apps was mentioned multiple times. Smart products are uniquely identifiable, may be located at any time and “know” their own history, current status and alternative routes to achieving their target state. It left some of the audience wondering where innovation is going to come from. A lot of innovation is not based on a “Eureka” moment but rather lucky accidents or not quite sticking to the protocol and making mistakes. These instances are near on excluded in an automated lab. Another doubt that was raised was: Where is the space, if not need, for the scientist is in this fully automated lab? “He” has more time to think about the science and efficiency gains rather than processing the work. Unfortunately, the scientist was exclusively referred to as a “he” throughout the whole workshop, which irritated myself and another female member of the audience to the extent that it seemed appropriate to clarify that the scientist can be a female scientist. Unconscious discrimination is one of the reasons why there are still so few leading women in science. There was a conspicuous lack of women, both in the audience and in particular in the selection of session leaders, which were all male. It would be nice to see some female panel members in the future. Also, this year only one out of 12 session chairs throughout the whole conference were female.
Near on every panel member in the lab of the future workshop voiced that the interconnectivity should be down scalable to medium and small labs. As a member of the academic research community and a small lab, I felt somewhat left out though. We do not generally use automated machinery, never mind machinery connected to the internet of things. Often enough there is a piece of equipment, that has to be taken off the net entirely because the software is so outdated (and not supplier maintained anymore) that it has to run on an obsolete operating system posing a risk to the University network. That means we are in fact taking a step away from the lab of the future. The audience saw the responsibility with the industrial sector to come up with a solution and I am looking forward to seeing a change in the future. Also, electronic notebooks (find the same presentation here with audio comment) are already a standard in the industrial sector but the academic sector is severely lagging behind. Not all universities have specific guidelines on how to keep a paper lab book, never mind having a system of electronic lab books in place. The responsibility here lies in the academic sector to catch up but it might have to be a bottom up approach to induce a change.
The high point of the second day and probably the conference as a whole was the plenary keynote by Dr Nessa Carey asking whether we can fix big pharma. Her keynote was eloquent, inspiring and also entertaining. We can all do our bit to help fix big pharma. It is not the evil it is often made out to be. Millions of lives have been saved by pharmacological advances and still are being saved, however it does suffer from the worst PR there is.
Overall, I enjoyed the ELRIG Drug Discovery 2017 and am looking forward to the next instalments in London in 2018 and back in Liverpool in 2019.