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GSK’s Helium Rises to the Top


Best Practices Awards 2011: Knowledge Management
Winner: GlaxoSmithKline
Nominator: Ceiba Solutions
Project: Helium in Excel: A New Paradigm for Data Insight

By Alissa Poh

August 2, 2011 | Familiarity breeds contempt, it’s said, but not in the case of GlaxoSmithKline’s most recent tool for SAR analysis: Helium, which has the ubiquitous Microsoft Excel at its core, and received Bio•IT World’s Best Practices Award in the Knowledge Management category this year.

Helium was first conceived several years ago as GSK sought to streamline data access for its scientists. Then, GSK managed data based on how it was stored, not how it was used within workflows. This resulted in “siloed” datasets requiring a slew of laborious steps before scientists could use the information. Researchers were left with a mishmash of tools and resources that, as a GSK representative puts it, “did some things really well but probably overlapped in a lot of cases.”

Unsurprisingly, the idea of creating a “Swiss army knife” approach to all of the company’s SAR needs proved popular. The first version of Helium was based on TIBCO Spotfire, but the average bench researcher found Spotfire difficult to navigate. Then in 2009, GSK purchased ChemAxon’s suite of tools—JChem for Excel, Instant JChem, and JChem Cartridge—and modified Helium to utilize Excel’s spreadsheet format. The idea was that researchers would find Helium’s “wrapper” comfortingly familiar, while the tool retained Spotfire’s functionality.

Helium mines and reveals relationships between integrated data stores. Based on a data’s “type”—say, a compound, gene, target, or project code—Helium suggests complimentary data from disparate sources. For instance, if a project code is entered, Helium prompts scientists to retrieve associated compound numbers and places these in a second column. If the scientist clicks on this column, Helium offers data relationships such as “Compound Number to Structure,” or “Compound Number to Biological Result.”

Helium can thus generate a vast lexicon of data mashups, all via commands in plain English. Researchers need not know where data is stored, its format, or even the specifics of running a query.

Helium’s advent enabled the retirement of two key systems within discovery: a toolset for retrieving biological data from GSK’s in-house systems; and a bespoke chemistry spreadsheet. Both of these were “complex to maintain and required significant training,” says a company representative; scientists find Helium much more flexible and intuitive.

Developing Helium involved plenty of end user ownership and interaction, according to GSK. A senior researcher from discovery headed a group of 10 users covering all disciplines and sites within the company’s R&D; the group met weekly to review Helium’s progress and put the product through its paces on “live” data.

GSK opted for a gradual, “viral” release of Helium in 2010. Users passed Helium along to peers if they felt the product would be useful, and this word-of-mouth approach “actually worked very well.” Currently, Helium is employed by over 1,400 users in GSK’s discovery domain, a number expected to rise to 3,500. This tool has “dramatically increased” productivity and scientific knowledge interchange, the company says, besides eliminating over 30% of IT infrastructure.

Branching Out

Plans are already afoot to commercialize Helium’s functionality for a broader market, starting with GSK’s biopharma and preclinical spaces. The company is working with IT company Ceiba Solutions on this active expansion of Helium into new domains, which involves updating core functionalities such as security, and will also necessitate preliminary feedback from new user groups.

“Ultimately, R&D IT leadership strives to provide their researchers with real-time, comprehensive insights across disparate data sources,” says Ceiba Solutions’ president Tom Arneman. “In developing Helium, GSK realized this goal, drastically reducing license fees for point search portals, and saving scientists valuable time and focus.” Ceiba nominated the product for Best Practices consideration this year, as “Helium is a visionary solution to a very real and growing need for the industry.” A GSK representative admits that they had few expectations with regards to Helium’s entry, as competition in their category was “very strong indeed; we were surprised and very pleased at the announcement [of Helium’s win].”

Like many of its pharmaceutical peers, GSK is moving away from huge data stores, and adopting Web 2.0/3.0 for sleeker data integration, while requiring minimal specific training for its scientists. Helium, designed to be sophisticated yet user-friendly, will be “a crucial element in effecting this cultural change.”  

This article also appeared in the 2011 July-August issue of Bio-IT World.
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