Six Tips for Creating a Precision Medicine Lab

The worldwide precision medicine market is expected to reach $141.7 billion by 2026

Emily Newton

Advancements in precision medicine give patients and providers hope for effective personalized cures and treatments. That progress will depend on whether there are enough labs equipped to further progress in the field. 

The worldwide precision medicine market’s worth was $48.9 billion in 2017. However, analysts expect it to reach $140.69 billion by 2028. Given that anticipated rise, it may be the ideal time to design and open a precision medicine lab. Here are six tips to succeed with this difficult but worthwhile goal. 

1. Consider collaborating with other parties

Since creating a precision medicine lab is a large undertaking, seek out input from others to learn about the resources you’ll need to make the facility feasible and productive. 

The experts and professionals you speak with might bring up requirements you hadn’t thought of before. Plus, they could become sources of vital emotional support during the project’s most challenging phases, such as seeking financing, ensuring the facility complies with regulations, and ironing out data management plans.  

In one recent example, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)’s medical school and hospital laboratories worked together to open a genomics diagnostics lab. People from the pediatric microbiology and clinical genetics departments also plan to join the project as partners. 

“This lab represents the efforts of a cross-disciplinary team working to provide the latest in testing technologies for our patients,” said Dr. George Netto, MD, Robert and Ruth Anderson Endowed Chair at UAB, in a UAB News article. “The expertise of the lab’s clinicians and staff, combined with the powerful diagnostic capability of its instruments, will allow UAB to offer patients increasingly targeted, personalized treatment.”

Asking people from other departments to provide input about their workflows and how the facility design could support their work encourages you to think about what type of equipment and lab layouts they need to work most productively. Getting that input shows others that you care about what they think and value their insights, demonstrating that their involvement matters now and for the long term. 

2. Minimize resource use where possible

Statistics indicate that laboratories on university campuses use more than 40 percent of an institution’s total electricity demand. Even if your precision medicine lab will not operate at a university, make an effort to save energy. 

The first step is to obtain baseline readings of how much energy the lab equipment uses in a given week or month. That information makes it easier to identify future problems. Getting enough data is critical for the accuracy of the baseline readings. When representatives from Harvard University sought to make labs more energy efficient, they used energy monitors that took measurements from their equipment every 15 minutes for two weeks.

Start with the freezers and refrigerators. Dirty compressors can make those appliances run more frequently than they should to maintain low temperatures. Receiving data that the energy usage is suddenly higher lets people act faster, avoiding waste. 

A water audit can also uncover valuable ways for a precision medicine lab to save money. It can indicate which equipment could use less water without decreasing efficiency. 

Water usage can vary by season, especially if the lab is significantly more active at certain times of the year. That’s why it’s useful to carry out water audits at different periods and see how the results differ.

If your initial readings are higher than you would like or expect, try not to panic or feel frustrated. Optimizing your lab’s use of resources requires ongoing effort and provides lasting rewards, making the commitment worthwhile. From an organizational perspective, minimizing resource usage should lower utility bills. Moreover, being part of the collective societal effort to curb waste reduces greenhouse gases, which is good for human health and the planet’s sustainability.

3. Focus on flexibility in the design

Your needs will likely evolve once your precision medicine lab opens. In other words, you cannot count on your needs being the same five years from now as they are today. With that in mind, think about how you can make your lab’s design as adaptable as possible.

Begin by ensuring there is enough capacity for projects currently underway and those confirmed in the pipeline. Then, think about what you could do to increase the likelihood of scaling up or completely changing the use of a part of the lab. 

Take specifics into account, such as any requirements for certain pieces of equipment and their associated energy and space footprints. How can you streamline traffic flow in the laboratory when envisioning a time when people are simultaneously working on different projects? 

You may even use a digital twin or another simulation tool to see the effects of certain design decisions before making them. That could save you from some of the anxiety that often results when wondering if what you envision will function well in reality.

The field of precision medicine is still at an early stage but don’t overlook how rapidly it is progressing. Do what you can now to make your lab’s design as flexible as possible so it meets immediate needs as well as those that could arise later. Having that foresight now will let you reap the benefits of smooth workflows later.

4. Plan for patient-centric tasks

One of the most promising possibilities in precision medicine is identifying disease before a person becomes ill rather than responding to later symptoms. For example, current research suggests that blood biomarkers and gene variations could predict someone’s likelihood of developing heart failure. And those characteristics could also reveal how the individual would likely respond to particular treatments. 

Adam Bass, MD, is the founding director of the Center for Precision Cancer Medicine at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) at Columbia University Medical Center. He sees a future where work done in the laboratory directly coincides with patient studies. 

“While the fundamental work to define precision cancer medicine is largely done in the laboratory using model systems such as cancer cells that researchers can grow in the lab, this process is now interwoven with studies in the patient,” wrote Bass in a September 2021 article for Columbia News. “The most important model of cancer will always be that of real cancer in a real person. Thus, while laboratory work remains essential, our studies are increasingly looking at these critical questions in our patients.”

“With the use of circulating markers of cancer that can be detected in blood, to studies we can do on biopsies of patients’ tumors during therapy or advanced new imaging techniques, we can define how cancers adapt and evolve during therapy. These observations from the patients can then be brought back to laboratory models so we can define the approaches to thwart cancer’s ability to defy our therapies.”

Don’t forget about patients’ roles in your work when you design a precision medicine lab. You may not invite patients directly into the facility, but you’ll certainly need dedicated areas to process their samples. Planning for those spaces now means you’ll be well-equipped to positively influence the future of patient care with your work.

5. Communicate your ideas with understandable language 

There’s a good chance your precision medicine lab will eventually need donations as part of its financing. Think about how you can describe the facility's future aspirations in accessible language rather than focusing solely on industry jargon. That will make it easier to get attention for your efforts and increase the chances of interest from generous donors.

Such a gift allowed the launch of a dual-arm precision medicine laboratory run by Harvard Medical Center in Massachusetts and Clalit Research Institute in Israel. The facility’s research arm will use data insights to unlock new medical interventions. An educational component will train people as biomedical informaticians and computational biologists.

When discussing your lab with people without backgrounds in precision medicine, talk about the facility’s goals in language that people can quickly understand and embrace. Put yourself in their position, using phrases and ideas to appeal to their emotional and practical sides. Don’t be afraid to mention some of the challenges encountered so far, coupling those details with hope and excitement. 

Knowing how to talk to the public could also lead to opportunities for you or a chosen representative to mention the lab during a TV, radio, or newspaper interview. The more positive traction you can get for the project, the easier it should be to generate support for its current and future needs. 

6. Recognize the value of and need for safe data-sharing

Precision medicine is all about having a better understanding of how certain health conditions affect individuals and populations. That’s one of the reasons why doing it well relies so heavily on big data. 

In the case of rare diseases, a single hospital system may only have a few patients that have been diagnosed with a particular condition, meaning they cannot get adequate care locally. In a survey conducted by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, 39 percent of patients reported having to travel at least 60 miles for medical needs in 2019. Moreover, 17 percent relocated to improve their access to treatment. These realities could mean the data about their conditions and care is concentrated in areas with particular specialists and not shared between researchers who could learn from it.

However, by incorporating seamless and secure data-sharing into your lab’s design, the researchers and clinicians affiliated with your facility and elsewhere will have better access to information that leads to progress. 

The Canadian Distributed Infrastructure for Genomics (CanDIG) is one example of a data-sharing project spanning multiple institutions and precision medicine programs. So far, participating facilities include the SickKids Research Institute, McGill University, and Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre. CanDIG will enable researchers to share genomic information and provide compiled data to larger datasets worldwide.  

The project is also a promising example of a multidisciplinary effort. Clinicians and geneticists work alongside computer scientists and artificial intelligence specialists to get results and facilitate safe data transfers. As you think about your lab's required computer setup and cybersecurity, go beyond the people working in the facility or even in your state and think about how to protect data traveling between countries.

However, sometimes a precision medicine lab may want to limit how it shares information. A recent initiative at the University of Bonn, Germany, shows how artificial intelligence could fit into precision medicine plans. Researchers used swarm learning to detect incidences of certain diseases within decentralized data. Using the data, the algorithms “learned” to differentiate between healthy and unwell patients.

During the process, the clinical data remained within its home institution, while the respective algorithms and parameters were shared with other institutes. 

Adopt a broad perspective for your precision medicine lab

These six tips will help you design a thorough plan for your precision medicine facility. In a rapidly evolving field such as this, ensuring your design is adaptable and future-proof means your lab will be able to provide quality patient care for decades to come.