Saturday, August 21, 2010

Varus! Where are my legions (of data)!?!?

Bring up the subject of outsourcing, and many minds will immediately jump to the idea of a company using outside services to more cheaply replace operations formerly conducted in house. But the other side of the topic is what I frequently experience: outsourcing allows me to access technologies and capabilities which I simply could not afford to do so on my own, or at least try very expensive technologies prior to investing in them. This is very useful, but has its own issues.

I've now gotten data from 4 different large outsourced sequencing projects. Rated on a five star system, they would (in order) be rated less than expected (**), complete failure (*), less than expected (**) and greater than expected (****). Samples for two more projects just shipped out last week. Given that we don't have any sort of sequencer in house (one project above was conventional Sanger) nor can we willy-nilly buy any specialized hardware for target enrichment (two projects involved enrichment), this has been valuable -- though I really wish I could have been able to rate all as greater than expected (or at least one off the charts).

After the quality of the delivered data, my next greatest frustration is with knowing when that data will be delivered. Now a few projects (plus some explicit vendor tests not included in the above) have gone on schedule, but the utter failure had the pain compounded by being grossly overdue (1-3 months, depending on how you quite define the start point) and one of the other projects came in a week overdue.

But even worse than being late is not knowing how late until the data shows up. Partly this revolves around trying to appropriately budget my time, but it also affects transmitting expectations to others awaiting the results.

In an ideal world, I'd have a real-time portal onto the vendor's LIMS -- one cancer model outfit claimed exactly this. But in any case, I'd really like to have regular updates as to the progress of my project -- and especially to what's happening if the vendor has gone into troubleshooting mode.

After all, what these outfits wish to claim is that they will act as an extension of my organization. Now, if the work was going on in house & I was concerned about progress, I could easily pop in and chat with the person(s) working on it. I'm not interested in hanging over someone's shoulder & making them nervous, but I do like to try to at least understand what is going on & what approaches are being used to solve this. Unfortunately, in several outsourcing projects this is specifically what was lacking -- no concrete estimate of a schedule nor any regular communication when projects were overdue.

In a basic sense, I'd like an update every time my project crosses a significant threshold. Now, the exact definition of that is tricky. But, imagine a typical hybridization capture targeted sequencing. The vendor receives my DNA, shears, size selects, ligates adapters, amplifies and has a library. Some QC happens at various stages. Then there is the hybridization, recovery and further amplification. At some point the platform-specific upstream-of-sequencer step occurs (cluster formation or ePCR). Then it goes on the sequencer. Each cycle of sequencing occurs, plus (for Illumina) cluster regeneration and paired end sequencing. Then downstream basecalling (if not in line). Once basecalls are done, then whatever steps occur to get me the data. And that's all the correct workflow: throw in some troubleshooting for problems should they occur.

Now, ideally I could see all of those steps. But how? I really don't want an email after every sequencer cycle. Could something like Twitter be adapted for this purpose?

Happily, the recent experience when I thought of the title for this post the data did finally come in (after some hiccups with delivery) and was quite exciting. So I'm not tearing my lab coat like Augustus. But when vendors try to solicit my business or when I'm rating the experience afterwards, the transparency and granularity of their communication will be a critical consideration. Vendors who are reading this take note!

No comments: