Technology Platforms and Life Sciences: Interview with Patrick England, President of CTLS (Core Technologies for Life Sciences)

 

At CTLS 2018, the CTLS (Core Technologies for Life Sciences) congress held in Ghent last July, Patrick England, President of CTLS, was kind enough to answer our questions.

Founded in 2016 and now comprising more than 175 members from 18 countries, CTLS aims to bring together scientific, technological and administrative teams working within or closely related to shared research infrastructures, often referred to as “core facilities”, in the field of life sciences.

To find out more about CTLS : http://www.ctls-org.eu

Can you explain what a core facility is and why is this organizational model becoming more important in modern research ?

I think that the key moment in life sciences was roughly 20 years ago, with the advent of “omic” systematic approaches, whereas before the prevalent approaches were rather analytical. “Omic” approaches generate a lot of data that often requires technological and methodological resources that are quite heavy and evolving more and more rapidly.

As a result, most research institutes and academic institutions have come to the conclusion that an isolated laboratory, rich as it may be, was unable to keep pace, from a financial, methodological and technical point of view.

And so the idea of ​​having technology “hubs” or centers of excellence, a concept that already existed in other areas, has grown more and more in life sciences. Subsequently, we have adopted the term “core facilities” or “core”. In French, we talk about technological platforms or research infrastructures, or even service units. There are many names, which is not obvious from an outsider’s point of view. It is not always easy to navigate in this rather complex ecosystem.

So there has been much sharing, at the level of an institution, or of several institutions that decide to pool resources in the context of regional, national or transnational clusters. It started with instrumentation, then with expertise, human resources and knowledge.

Personally, I have been working in this field for over 15 years, and if I’ve stayed in this kind of structure for so long, it is because I am convinced that these are structures that are worthwhile and that they represent a model that is worth being extended. Indeed, we can see that more and more institutions are setting up such structures in the field of life sciences. This is the case of the Institut Pasteur where I work. This is clearly an increasingly prevalent model.

What do you see as the main challenges around core facilities ?

The main challenge for the institution that decides to establish this type of structure is to remain at the forefront of methodological and technological development, and to have a competitive advantage over other institutions. The probability of not missing out on something important is much greater when pooled expert structures are used than when skills and expertise are too scattered.

But, being at the origin with other people of CTLS, an association that represents the core facilities, I would tend to look at things from a different angle, in terms of the optimal functioning of these structures. I think that one of the main issues is to be able to evaluate as effectively as possible the needs of the scientific community to which the structure is directed so that it can best meet them. These structures are intended to provide services, to bring expertise around access to instrumentation to a community of researchers. I would say that the real issue is to have the best possible match between offer and demand. This does not necessarily mean that it is simply a question of assessing needs and trying to adapt to them. Very often, we see that the best platforms are those that are quite proactive, launching balloon probes to gauge how much the ideas they may have internally correspond to needs or opportunities for development within a community of users.

Then, one of the big problems is to find ways to achieve what we think is necessary, both financially and in terms of human resources. We must find optimal conditions in terms of instrumentation and working environment, since we are in structures that sometimes provide services remotely, but most often welcome people within the structure. It must therefore be welcoming, not only the people, but the premises, etc.

The other major challenge is to be able to define what we should do internally at the core facility, and what should be done partnerships or outsourcing. In which cases it’s better to develop in-house expertise, and in which cases it’s better to advise people and direct them to the right place.

It is thus important to have a network, not just an address book, but a good knowledge of what other structures do, in a logic of complementary, to avoid unnecessary duplications that can have serious consequences from an investment point of view.

The role of an association like CTLS is indeed to promote these synergies and the sharing of experience and knowledge within a community, and to encourage this community to collaborate even if the members of CTLS belong to institutions that are often competing against each other.

This requires knowledge of the existing offer, which is not necessarily obvious. It is also one of the concrete objectives of our association. Search engines only give the emerged part of the iceberg, and often what is most interesting is not necessarily what is most visible. CTLS is working on this with the European Science Foundation to build an inventory that may not be exhaustive, but will give a good representation of our community.

At this level, a software solution can certainly be very useful, especially for small structures that want to be more visible but do not know how, to avoid the writer’s block.

Are there major trends in terms of organization, management, grouping, etc.?

We realize that for a platform to be attractive, besides skills, what is important is the ability to interact successfully with users and keeping a human scale. I think that one of the things that people appreciate when they work with a core facility is to have contacts with people, not just a remote machine interface, and only samples and results that circulate.

I think that one of the things that makes an academic research platform successful vs service delivery companies is this ability to interact with users, this ability to advise. Often people do not necessarily come with a well-finalized demand, and it is in the dialogue and reformulation of the original question that an action plan is developed in common.

This is what makes the difference with service companies, which have often developed as spin-offs of academic institutions. This ecosystem of small service companies is really win-win, since academic institutions are quite happy to be able to outsource a number of things that are not necessarily of high added value, whereas fifteen years ago the only solution was to do everything internally. I think it’s a pretty heavy trend, and the academic platforms are encouraging the emergence of these small service companies.

Then I think that there is more and more networking, whether at regional, national or international level. What is important is to share knowledge and expertise in an increasingly open way, with open science programs going in this direction. At the same time, we must be able to develop and promote intellectual property, which is obviously a source of significant funding for an institution, while sharing and collaborating.

We are seeing more and more public / private cooperation on research projects. Are there any differences in approach between public and private research from the point of view of the organization and use of technology platforms? What is the impact of these cooperations on the management of core facilities ?

If we look in the field of life sciences, the vast majority of “big / medium pharma” have platforms. This is because these companies are very often multi-sites, and can’t develop a center of expertise in each of their sites and tend to centralize or specialize. Often, they tend to hire people who have worked for academic platforms, which facilitates the relationship.

On the other hand, the context is not necessarily the same, because the scientific community that an industrial research platform is addressing is much more clearly defined, with the exception of the CROs (“contract research organizations”) which are intended to be open to the world.

There is a fairly spontaneous sharing of knowledge with our industrial colleagues. Most often, collaborations are part of the upstream feasibility study of a well-targeted project, to then allow a company to make a decision. They often come to us to help them in the development of the specifications, to check if their ideas seem feasible.

There are also consortia involving pharmaceutical companies and various research institutions, such as BioAster in which the Institut Pasteur is involved. It is rather in this environment that academic institutions can use research platforms that are in pharmaceutical companies, and therefore private. In the context of direct bilateral agreements, it is rather the pharmaceutical company that wishes to use the academic research platform.

What do you think are the main challenges of research with regard to digital transformation, and digital technologies in general (big data, machine learning, AI, mobility, etc.) ?

We are totally convinced. During our congress CTLS 2018, several sessions were dedicated to digital technologies. It is true that we put a lot of emphasis on big data, and all the issues of data generation, storage, analysis and data recovery, but project management is also an area of interest. It’s something that completely revolutionizes our field.

Fifteen years ago, if we had started talking about workflows in research platforms, people would have seen it as an administrative or technocratic constraint. Today, mentalities are changing, even though I have the impression that the scientific world is still a world that thinks that the outside world has to adapt to it rather than the opposite!  So software solutions have to adapt, but why not also look at solutions that have been proven in other areas. The truth probably lies in the middle.

There are more and more solutions that have proven themselves, or have already been explored by colleagues, or solutions that are developed by companies like Keralia that integrate scientific staff.

The question is to assess the overall impact of what you call digital transformation on our business. I think we see it in a very sequential way, for example at the level of data generation, but we need advice, coaching to understand what can be the specific outcomes for research and start our “cultural revolution”, despite the fact that there is an activation barrier to be crossed.