When Ebola Vaccine Development Slows Down: How ELNs Can Preserve Information

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With Ebola outbreaks crippling parts of Africa and the threat of potential outbreaks elsewhere around the world, many labs are working hard to develop a vaccine to help prevent the spread of the deadly disease.
Image Source: Army Medicine via Wikimedia Commons

The Ebola virus seized headlines in 2014 when West African countries reported a resurgence of the hemorrhagic fever caused by the infection. Confirmation of the cases soon raised international concerns about a potential global epidemic due to the unprecedented number of afflicted patients. Anxiety over the disease continued to increase as aid workers responsible for treating patients began to show symptoms. It seemed like I couldn’t turn on the radio or watch the news without hearing mention of Ebola and its potential of gaining a foothold in the United States.

Many factors contributed to this latest Ebola outbreak. While central African countries are familiar with the virus, the same cannot be said for nations in West Africa. When the disease popped up in highly concentrated urban centers, a healthcare system weakened by civil war and unrest was poorly equipped to handle the crisis. Combined with deep-seated cultural beliefs, the virus spread undetected for weeks before identification.

This latest outbreak showed several cracks in a global response to an international epidemic. In the case of Ebola, the most obvious deficiency was a lack of a vaccine. This revelation surprised many people since Ebola has been present in many African countries for decades. In my previous laboratory job, I witnessed how the resulting public pressure spurred on vaccine development. Research funds were diverted as scientists moved to remedy the oversight.

The Aftermath

A year has passed since Ebola first appeared in Guinea and its surroundings countries. Liberia, once a hotbed of infection, shows fewer new cases every day. Last month, President Obama announced he was pulling the majority of U.S. troops from the country.

While fewer infected patients is considered a good thing, it also leads to complications. The decline in cases has caused at least one North American company to cancel the clinical trials necessary in formal testing. Vaccine development requires patients. Without a sufficient number, valid data analysis is impossible.

It also lessens the public urgency that can push vaccine development. Fewer cases mean fewer headlines, and fewer headlines mean less time spent in the public consciousness. With public interest redirected elsewhere, funding sources may choose to shift focus as well. I worked many years in both the academic and government sectors, and I have personally seen this happen in watching which projects get funded and which do not.

When areas of interest shift, research and development often slows down. Projects may be put on pause until funds become available again. In those instances, it becomes imperative to preserve the existing information. Digital systems like electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are more than capable of doing this.

Protocols

As the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak showed us, it’s crucial to have protocols in place. But what if researchers had access to existing protocols from other countries more versed in handling Ebola, like Zaire or the Republic of Congo? Instead of creating standard operating procedures (SOPs) from scratch, they could have adapted those procedures to their present circumstances. The same applies to laboratory protocols. It’s much easier to start with a base protocol and adapt it for your current purpose.

Data

In the case of Ebola, management of patient information is key. Unfortunately, it’s easy to misplace large swaths of data due to disorganization. When projects are put on the back burner, data often gets tagged for filing at a “later date.” Speaking from experience, however, that “later date” sometimes never comes. If it does, trying to make sense of scattered data can be difficult, especially if you weren’t an original member of the project. Keeping it centralized from the beginning would make recall easier. If key researchers are moved to other projects during a slowdown and cannot return when projects pick up again, their successors can take up the gauntlet without losing time.

The Importance of Centralized Location with ELNs

Keeping the data in one place also makes it easily accessible in case of an audit by outside agencies. As we saw with Ebola, public pressure led to increased scrutiny. We had a similar incident occur at my previous laboratory. An accident at another lab led to an audit of other laboratories in the field. We lost a week of productive work because we had to find and present specific information for outside inspection.

Ebola vaccine development is merely one case example in which research can be aided by an ELN. Its uses can be applied to a variety of fields. Interested in learning what the BIOVIA Notebook can do for you? Contact us today for more information.

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