Searching for Gold: GSK’s New Search Program that Saved Them Millions

June 5, 2013

By Matt Luchette

June 5, 2013 | In 2011, the leadership in the GlaxoSmithKline’s R&D department made a troubling realization: their scientists were having a tough time finding their data.

By that point, GSK’s research staff was logging all of their experimental results in electronic lab notebooks. But once the data was saved, the company’s search program, GSKSearch, wasn’t able to parse the records. If researchers in one division wanted to investigate a compound for clinical development, they had no way of efficiently accessing any studies the company had already done on the compound. And for the data GSKSearch could access, the program couldn’t recognize many of the chemical, biological, and clinical terms that identified specific experiments. 

“The search capabilities were not adequate,” said Mirna Samano, the program manager for GlaxoSmithKline’s MaxData strategic program.

Hard-to-reach data and archived experiments meant lost time and money for the company, so Samano and her R&D division set up focus groups with GSK scientists to identify what they needed in order to make the most of their data. 

The message from the scientists was resounding: “Why can’t we have something like Google?”

To resolve the program, the R&D engineers’ first instinct was to investigate Autonomy, the text search program used for GSKSearch, for any limitations or errors in the code. But the program was full-functioning and gave robust results. What they realized, though, was that the search requirements for their scientists were different than those of a standard text search engine. They didn’t need Google; they needed a specialized program that could recognize the various chemical compounds or drug targets that GSK researchers test every day.

“We needed to help R&D maximize the value of their data,” said Samano.

The R&D IT engineers set to work developing a new search program that would expand the capabilities of GSKSearch. Most importantly, the engineers wanted the program to search the company’s entire library of electronic lab notebooks and recognize chemicals through their various generic and scientific names, as well as drawings and substructures. In addition, they wanted to add new capabilities, such as recognizing combination drugs, gene aliases, or standard disease vocabulary, to make searches more streamlined.

Socrates Search, as the project came to be known, was made by combining a number of commercial search programs, many of which were already in place at GSK. Autonomy’s text search and ChemAxon’s JChem Oracle cartridge, which allows users to search for chemicals with their various names or structure, were already a part of GSKSearch, but now had added capabilities, including improved text analytics and data extraction with software from NextMove, and web integration with Microsoft’s C# ASP.NET libraries.  The result was a new program that could search through the company’s archived electronic lab notebooks and recognize a vast library of scientific terms, bringing once inaccessible data to scientists’ fingertips.

Samano said the program was an excellent exercise in “how to combine a company’s existing tools to accomplish goals.”

Samano added that while Socrates has been optimized to recognize the company’s chemical and biological experiments, in future iterations, she hopes to make the program more useful for other areas of R&D, such as clinical and regulatory records.

Today, Socrates Search has access to over 2 million of the company’s online lab notebooks, has indexed over 70 million unique terms, and supports an average of 500 users every month. GSK spent about 1 million pounds (about $1.5 million) on the project, and the company estimates that Socrates Search could save as much as $2 million pounds each year in improved efficiency. 

“The value of the tool is greatly recognized at GSK,” Samano explained. As a director in GSK’s Animal Research Strategy remarked, “This tool allows us to more fully apply our considerable experience, link internal experience, and design more robust experiments.”

The program’s capabilities have been recognized outside of the company as well, most recently by winning the 2013 Best Practices Award for Knowledge Management at the Bio-IT World Expo in April. Winning the award, Samano said, has been instrumental in gaining interest from more colleagues throughout GlaxoSmithKline who would like to take advantage of Socrates’ capabilities. “The project has been a great experience for our team,” she said.