An Opportunity for Transformational Change in Clinical Trials

Life sciences research is recognized as one of the most technologically advanced, groundbreaking endeavors of modern times. Nevertheless until very recently the preferred technology for executing the most critical, costly stage of the R&D process – clinical trials – has been paper forms. Only in 2008 did adoption of electronic alternatives to paper forms take place in more than half of new trials. This recent uptick in adoption rates is encouraging, but further transformational change in the industry is necessary to fully realize the promise of Electronic Data Capture (EDC) and associated “eClinical” technologies. Two developments that could provide the framework for such change are adoption of open data standards and the use of Open Source Software.

Data standards provide uniform ways to represent information or processes within a specific frame of reference and according to a detailed specification. A standard is “open” when it is not encumbered by patent, cost, or usage restrictions. Open Source Software (OSS) is defined loosely as software that allows programmers to openly read, redistribute, and modify the source code of that software. The combination of OSS and open standards is a proven way to deliver improved flexibility, quality, and efficiency.

A community-driven open source offering that harnesses open standards can produce robust, innovative technology solutions for use in regulated clinical trial environments. Most Open Source Software is built using a collaborative development model. The OSS development and licensing model encourages experimentation, reduces ‘reinvention of the wheel’, and allows otherwise unaffiliated parties to build on the work of others. The result is that OSS can become a key driver of increased IT efficiency and a way to wring out unnecessary costs. In many cases, users can have the best of all worlds: the ability to adopt software rapidly and at low cost, the flexibility to develop and extend their systems as they choose, and the ability to reduce risk by obtaining paid commercial-grade support.

As clinical research struggles to become more automated and efficient, we need to rely on interoperable systems to meet challenges of flexibility, quality, and speed. The OSS development model also naturally leads to the adoption of well-documented, open standards. Because OSS product designers and developers tend to reuse successful components and models where available, OSS technologies are often leading implementers of standards. For example, the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Bioinformatics Grid (caBIG) initiative is “designed to further medicine’s potential through an open source network” based on open data standards and infrastructure that support sharing of heterogeneous data. This remarkable effort aims to connect large networks of researchers in ways that enables efficient re-use of data, eliminates duplicate systems, and enables new types of translational research.

In industry-sponsored clinical trials, standards such as the CDISC Operational Data Model (ODM), Clinical Data Acquisition Standards Harmonization (CDASH), and Study Data Tabulation Model (SDTM) have gained adoption in both proprietary and OSS software platforms. In some cases, standards are mandated for regulatory submission and reporting (SDTM, clinicaltrials.gov) and obviously must be adopted. Other cases, such as use of ODM, CDASH, and general web standards such as web services and XForms tend to be adopted to the degree they have a compelling business case.

The business case for standards centers on increasing accuracy and repeatability, enabling reuse of data, and enhancing efficiency by use of a common toolset. A well-designed standard does not inhibit flexibility, but presupposes idiosyncrasies and allows extension to support ‘corner cases’. Leading industry voices share compelling arguments how to use standards such as ODM, CDASH, XForms, and Web Services to achieve these goals. Though the details are complicated, the approach offers orchestration of disparate applications and organization of metadata across multiple systems. There is change control support and a single ‘source of truth’ for each data point or study configuration parameter, so when study designs change (as they inevitably do) or a previously committed data point is rolled back, it is automatically shared and manual updates to systems are not necessary. Because the ODM, CDASH, and SDTM are used as a common “language”, the systems know the meaning and structure of data and can process transactions accordingly. Here’s a tangible example:

Lets imagine an IVR system wanted to check with an EDC system if a subject was current in a study (current meaning not dropped out, early terminated or a screen failure).  A Web Service could be offered by the EDC system to respond with a ‘True’ or ‘False’ to a call ‘IS_SUBJECT_CURRENT’ ?  Of course hand-shaking would need to occur before it hand [sic] for security and so on, but following this, the IVR system would simply need to make the call, provide a unique Subject identifier, and the EDC system web service would respond with either ‘True’ or ‘False.  With Web Services, this can potentially occur in less than a second.

Electronic Data Capture – Technology Blog, September 28, 2008

While this integration requirement could be satisfied by development of point-to-point, proprietary interfaces, this approach is brittle, costly, and does not scale well to support a third or fourth-party system participating in the transaction. It is critical that standards be open so that parties can adopt and implement them independently, and later interface their systems together when the business case calls for it. A leading industry blogger makes the case for the openness of standards within the ODM’s ‘Vendor Extension’ architecture: ”The ODM is an open standard, the spec is available for free and anyone can implement it. This encourages innovation and lowers the barriers to entry and therefore costs. Vendor Extensions are not open, the vendor is under no obligation to share them with the market and the effect is that meta-tools and inter-operability are held back.”

Having the software that implements these standards released as open source code only strengthens its benefits. Proprietary software can implement open standards, however given the proprietary vendor’s business interest to lock-in license revenue, might the vendor be tempted into tweaking or ‘extending’ the standard in a way that is encumbered to lock users into their platform? This strategy of “embrace, extend, extinguish” was made famous in the Microsoft anti-trust case of the 1990s, where it came to light that the company attempted to apply these principles to key Internet networking protocols, HTML and web browser standards, and the Java programming language. They hoped to marginalize competing platforms that did not support their “extended” versions of the standards. Thankfully, they had limited success in this effort, and the Internet has flourished into the open, constantly innovating, non-proprietary network that we know today. The eClinical technology field is at a similar crossroads. By embracing open standards, and working concertedly to provide business value in re-usable OSS technology, we can achieve a transformation in the productivity of our clinical technology investments.

OpenClinica 3.0 Features Preview – Part II

Welcome to Part II of the OpenClinica 3.0 features! I previously wrote about three of the main features for 3.0, Source Data Verification, new User Interface for navigation in the system, and a new Home Page for each user.

This post is about three additional features: (i) the new Build Study module, (ii) setting the length and significant digits of items, and (iii) the improved performance of the Subject Matrix.

In 3.0,  all the study build tools will accessed from one main page following a task-based approach. There are five tasks available to the user at the outset. Once the user finishes these first five tasks, two more tasks will become available (see image). This allows the complete study from CRFs to event definitions to sites to assignment of users be done all from a single page. There is also a checklist to let the user easily see how many tasks have been completed so they know how much more configuration is needed before the study is ready to start enrolling subjects.

Build Study Page in OpenClinica

OpenClinica 3.0 also allows the creator of CRFs to set the allowable length of  text fields including the number of decimal places a REAL number should be rounded to. This parameter is set in the OpenClinica CRF Template in a new field called Width_Decimal. The user will specify the width and decimal for a particular field which will force the user to enter the most precise data as possible in a CRF. No longer will the system round to the 4th decimal place at all times and allow up to 255 characters in the field if the CRF creator does not want them to. For example, the creator could specify that a field should have no more than 5 digits total with a maximum of 1 decimal place by entering 5(1) in the Width_Decimal column of the OpenClinica template. If the data entry person tried to enter 3.4444 or 678913 they would told the value is invalid.

By providing this functionality, OpenClinica will help the users get their data into SAS and SPSS more easily.

One of the most important and information-rich pages in OpenClinica is Subject Matrix page, and OpenClinica 3.0 provides significant performance enhancements on this page for studies with large numbers of of subjects.  From the Subject Matrix page users can see a snapshot of where the subjects are in the study, schedule a new event, view a subject record, view a subject event, enter data in a CRF and sign a subject’s record without having to navigate to different pages in this system. A number of users were reporting sluggish performance with the Subject Matrix when they had 5000 or more subjects enrolled in a study.

OpenClinica 3.0 utilizes a new table structure that allows users to load the Subject Matrix containing over 10,000 subjects and 15 event definitions in fewer than 5 seconds (this process could take upwards of a minute in previous releases of OpenClinica).

Please feel free to download the Beta version of OpenClinica 3.0 at http://svn.akazaresearch.com/OpenClinica-3.0-distros/.

OpenClinica 3.0 Features Preview – Part I

We have been working hard on OpenClinica 3.0 for the last 9 months and are getting closer and closer to a production release ready for use in live clinical studies. In the meantime, I wanted to talk about some of the new features over the next few weeks to let folks know what is coming.

OpenClinica 3.0 is sure to bring a lot of excitement to all users of the rapidly growing open source electronic data capture system. A lot of focus in this release has been put on the way trial sponsors use an EDC system and I’d like to point out some of the new features that should enhance their user experiences.

OpenClinica 3.0 will provide a new home page to study-level users providing key information about the progress of a study. These users will be able to see a summary of the subjects enrolled at each site compared to their expected total enrollment as well as the overall subject enrollment for the complete study. Also, these study-level users will be shown a count of the number of study events that are in a particular status. A summary for the number of subject statuses will be displayed so the study-level user can easily see how many subjects are signed, source data verified etc.

OpenClinica 3.0 will provide monitors a workspace to source data verify subjects and their data. The workspace will allow users to source data verify information collected at each visit one-by-one, or verify the information in a bulk process. These two options allow the monitors to perform remote source data verification daily for subjects in the study. Or, if the monitor has to be on site to review and verify information, he/she can go back to their hotel room and check-off verification for many subjects and events at once so they do not have to go one-by-one through every subject and event CRF.

The top-level navigation in OpenClinica 3.0 has been streamlined so site users of the application understand exactly what they have to do after they login. A new home page for investigators and clinical research coordinator users will show the number of queries assigned to them with a link to see every Query assigned them. The home page will show the 5 most recent queries to give the user an idea of what they need to respond to that day.

The new navigation points to the 3 main actions the site users should take. The “Subject Matrix” link will bring them to the new and improved subject matrix in OpenClinica. This matrix will allow users to easily add subjects, schedule events and even enter data from a single, powerful screen. The “Add Subject” link will bring them to a page where they can add a new subject to the study. “Notes & Discrepancies” will bring them to a page where they can see all the queries for their site and allow them to provide a response.

Above is just a small sample of the new features in OpenClinica 3.0. Like I said, I will plan on posting additional features once a week so be sure to check back often. In the meantime, please feel free to download the alpha2 at http://svn.akazaresearch.com/OpenClinica-3.0-distros/.

– Paul Galvin

How Open Source EDC Can Make Clinical Trials More Productive

Barbara Zwick, from the European clinical trial Evidence and Performance Blog recently published an interview with Ben Baumann, Director of Business Development at Akaza Research. The interview discusses how open source EDC (Electronic Data Capture) clinical trials software can help enhance product time to market and overall productivity of clinical trials. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

[BZ] Today’s big Pharma R&Ds are increasing their demand for efficiency and effectiveness. How are you facing this accelerating demand for speed to market?

[BB] There are a number of ways that OpenClinica can accelerate time-to-market. First, open source software can be much easier and quicker to evaluate and get up and running than proprietary software. People can readily install it and experiment with it. Potential adopters can readily inspect everything down to the source code and directly interact with other members of the OpenClinica community to get rapid, unbiased, real-world feedback.

In addition to a full set of EDC and CDM features one might expect in such a system, OpenClinica has  built-in features that give users the ability to set-up their own studies. Therefore, an organization can get a complete picture of how well the system will work for them before committing to use it.

In short, an organization can make a rapid and highly informed decision whether or not to use OpenClinica without having to go through lengthy vendor-biased demonstrations and negotiations, and rely on a vendor in order to get their studies configured appropriately.

[BZ] How can technologies serve to clinical trial performance, to minimize costs and time to market, and to allow rapid decision making? Are innovative EDC technologies, like your platform, more performant and focused on this specific need, rather than ‘old-fashioned’ EDC Solutions?

[BB] Aside from features of the product and benefits of the open source model described above, Akaza Research’s business model for support is designed to maximize productivity of clinical trials. Our support is comprehensive and highly flexible, so customers are able to obtain support packages tailored to their needs. In addition, our customers find our support to be of extremely high quality-after all support is our primary source of revenue.

Most of our support isn’t priced “per study” so clients are able to amortize their investment over numerous studies and don’t have to go through a lengthy contracting process for each new clinical trial they want to use OpenClinica for. This can really help to minimize costs and accelerate the set-up time for new studies.

[BZ] What are the pro and cons of an open source technologies versus a classical technology in the SaaS model?

[BB] First, OpenClinica is available under both a SaaS model and local deployment. Open source has a number of benefits over “classical” proprietary EDC systems. Here are a few examples:

–  Reduce vendor lock-in. Numerous proprietary EDC companies have failed and gone out of business. Open source products exist and evolve independently of any particular vendor, so if one vendor ceases to exist, there are others readily available to take their place.

–  Improved security. Open source software is frequently more secure and bug free than proprietary software. The open source code is continuously (and often intensely) scrutinized by large community developers and security experts. As a result bugs and security issues are found and fixed usually before they become real problems.

–  Readily customizable. Open source systems can be readily customized and extended–you don’t need to rely on a vendor who may or may not make the software modifications you need. If the system doesn’t work the way to want it to, you can change it.

–  Enhanced validation. Validation can be much more thorough with open source software. Buying proprietary software is like buying a car with the  hood welded shut-you don’t know what’s really know going on behind the scenes. Open source provides the highest level of transparency making it possible to truly validate a system from end-to-end.

OpenClinica European Summit

You may have seen the recent announcement of the OpenClinca European Summit. Akaza is planning this event to reach out to our European user base and provide an opportunity for face to face dialogue, networking, and learning. We’ve got a great lineup of speakers and panelists that we will be announcing soon.

From the announcement:

The first OpenClinca European Summit brings together users, developers, and other interested parties in a structured setting to share information about OpenClinica. Whether you’re already using OpenClinica or considering it for future use, this event is an excellent way to obtain lots of high quality information quickly and interact with real users in the OpenClinica community.

The Summit will take place April 14 in Brussels, followed by optional OpenClinica Intensive End User and Advanced eCRF Development training courses that will run April 15 – 18. Registration is open to all and the early bird deadline is January 30th. For more information see https://www.openclinica.org/European_Summit.html.

Hope to see you there!

The State of an Electronic Data Capture Open Source Community

I believe we’ll look back at 2008 as the year the OpenClinica open source community truly coalesced. From a size perspective we grew to over five thousand members, double the size of a year ago. Numbers of downloads, new registrations, and adopters in production all increased dramatically. However, the real substantive change has been in the emergence of committed individuals and organizations who participate in the community in meaningful ways.

As evidence of this, the first OpenClinica Community Virtual Forum took place in December. The goals of the forum are to provide an open environment to share ideas, promote collaboration within the community, and determine future direction in the use and development of the OpenClinica electronic data capture software. The meeting topics ranged from new feature development to how to make the development process more accessible to contributors. You can review the minutes here. Participants joined from industry and academia, from software development and data management backgrounds, and were able to share their ideas, experiences, and needs. Many of these participants are doing their own customization/extension of OpenClinica while others are providing detailed feeback and design ideas. We’ve previously discussed motivations for contributing to open source and it’s great to see it work in practice.

The next Virtual Forum will be in February 2009, and every other month thereafter. Participation is open to all, though we are limiting the size of the group to ensure productive discussion.

And that’s not all that’s happening. If you’re on one of our mailing lists you’ll have noticed the greater frequency and depth of discussion threads. The number of code contributions and branches of the OpenClinica code is increasing every month. On a related note, we will soon be announcing the first face-to-face OpenClinica User & Developer Summit.

All of this puts us in an exciting position as we start 2009. The OpenClinica community will continue to advance the vision of bringing free, open, standards-based EDC to users all over the world. This vision will grow with the enthusiasm of community members who don’t want to pay six or even seven-figure license fees, who want the freedom to integrate, customize, and control their software, and benefit from the knowledge and expertise of a transparent worldwide community. Our progress in 2008 and plans for 2009 illustrate that we are on our way!

Using OpenClinica for ICF-Based Data Acquisition

The use of electronic data capture (EDC) systems in health care, and especially in clinical trials, has been the object of significant research given the potential advantages like improved data quality, reduced cost, and increased trial repeatability. Despite significant interest and promised benefits, real adoption has been somewhat limited to date with most successful implementations performed in the field of pharmaceutical clinical trials. This can be attributed in part to the lack of underlying consistent and reusable internal data models and the high cost and complexity in customizing most EDC systems.

A potential alternative to traditional EDC software is the use of Open Source Software (OSS), broadly defined as software that is distributed as a freely available and freely modifiable system. This freedom gives the user the opportunity to perform structural modifications and adaptations to better integrate the software with pre-existing IT infrastructures, or to adapt it to local needs and requirements. There are many examples of large scale open source software (OSS) systems in health care, including the VISTA electronic health record system, used in the US Department of Defense and in several hundred installations across the world, the Care2X system, Indivo health, and the OpenClinica EDC system. The use of open source software facilitates the harmonization of a coherent and comprehensive data model that can be reused across different systems. In our work, ICF (the WHO classification for functioning and disability) has been selected as the underlying representational model, and implemented in the OpenClinica EDC software. The experimentation involved more than 10 Italian regions, with multiple hospitals and care centers. The EDC system was designed to test the effectiveness of ICF as a basis for data collection on disability and functioning in a wide spectrum of pathologies.

The complete WHO-ICF classification was imported from the CLAmL XML representation into the LexGrid editor, a tool created by Mayo Clinic for the purpose of editing and maintaining ontologies and classifications. Starting from this intermediate representation, the classification was first translated into the Italian language and then exported back into the CLAmL representation; this form was also used as the basis for the creation of the internal EDC data model, later imported into the OpenClinica platform. From this visual representation, a group of experts designed the set of forms that comprise the web application; later, the database structure and the final application templates were fixed and published on a public web site. The joint use of ICF as a representational model for an Electronic Data Capture system, coupled with the choice of open source software, yielded a significant reduction in the cost and implementation time of a multiregional EDC system. The ease of use of the web interface also facilitated interactions with medical experts to quickly implement alternative data representations and to create a stable and fast platform that is currently being used in an actual trial. OpenClinica demonstrates that open source is stable and ready to be used even in the strictest clinical trials, and that by using open source it is possible to create clinical research applications in a faster and more cost effective way.

– Carlo Daffara, Connecta

Why Pharmaceutical Companies Now Have a Reason to Choose Open Source

On October 27th, Bio-IT World published an article on the newly released OpenClinica 2.5. In a somewhat bold statement the article’s author stated that “Akaza Research has given pharmaceutical companies reason to take heed of the open source movement.” Akaza Research, of course, is the primary commercial force behind OpenClinica, the world’s most popular open source electronic data capture software.

What the author fails to explain, in my opinion, is why this is the case. For instance, I personally do not believe that the larger pharmaceutical companies would choose an open source EDC system for open source’s sake. In other words, the cost and flexibility benefits of open source, while significant, may not offer the same degree of value to Big Pharma as it would to myriad smaller companies. The industry’s largest firms have the financial resources and technical expertise to obtain and utilize essentially any solution in the marketplace and will therefore need a stronger motivation in order to move to open source. And I think that this motivation has to come from the quality of the technology and the overall solution through which it is implemented.

I do not believe OpenClinica would be making such a strong impact in such a short period of time if it weren’t for the robust open source community behind it. It is this community that provides fundamental value to the software. The decentralized efforts of users around the globe fuel OpenClinica’s evolution in a way that is both rapid and driven by true market demand from the trenches. The result is a product containing features that real-world users want and that work in the way these real world users want them to.

The open source community also helps to self-police the quality of OpenClinica distributions. There is a diverse group of users and developers who experiment with beta releases and continuously scour the system source code. From their unbridled vantage points within the community, these people report issues in a frank, public, and uncompromising manner. This transparency and candid public discourse about the software makes it difficult, if not impossible, to cut corners or sweep defects under the rug.

In a sense, with proprietary software you never really know what you’re getting. With open source software you know it all—both the good and the bad. It is the open source community that drives OpenClinica’s success, and this, in my opinion, is why pharmaceutical companies have reason to take heed of OpenClinica.

Validation Approach for OpenClinica

Lately there has been quite a bit of discussion in the OpenClinica community about validation. The following paragraphs provide a basic overview of the key pricipals and components of a validation approach for OpenClinica.

In 21 CFR Part 11, the FDA requires validation of all systems that store or manipulate data that will be part of a regulatory submission. However, the agency provides few hard-and-fast rules on what constitutes acceptable validation. Coming up with a validation plan without outside help can be a painful and inefficient process. Akaza Research facilitates the validation of the OpenClinica electronic data capture software by providing standardized documents that make the process of validating OpenClinica more efficient for our customers. Here’s a summary of what’s involved in validation OpenClinica, or any other computer system used in clinical trials, for that matter.

Because they are unsure what the FDA requires, sponsors tend to look for validation approaches that have been used successfully by others. Common validation practices in the industry are heavily influenced by a framework called GAMP, defined by the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineers. (GAMP originally stood for Good Automated Manufacturing Processes, but has come to be used outside the realm of manufacturing equipment.)

A typical structure for validation under GAMP is to start with User Requirements Specifications, which drive Functional Specifications, which in turn inform the Design Specifications.  The vendor’s work has to follow the specifications and the vendor’s Systems Development Lifecycle (SDLC).

Appropriate testing must follow test scripts that map back to the requirements. The individual piece of equipment (such as an OpenClinica server) is tested with Installation Qualification (IQ) by the vendor or the customer. This is essentially acceptance testing of the hardware. The next test is Operational Qualification (OQ) of the system, carried out by the vendor or customer. Finally, the customer carries out Performance Qualification (PQ). PQ has to be related to the User Requirements Specifications.

When Akaza implements its OpenClinica Enterprise solution for a customer, we carry out the IQ and OQ testing, and provide the signed test scripts together with a detailed report on the setup and configuration of the software.

It is generally not practical for the users of off-the-shelf software to produce User Requirements Specifications and the PQ scripts themselves. For this reason, it is common for customers base their specifications and PQ scripts on documents they obtain from the vendor. Akaza’s enterprise validation package includes electronic copies of these documents, as well as a traceability matrix that ties the PQ scripts back to the requirements. The customer can modify them as needed.

The FDA expects the customer to run the PQ tests. You can probably also hire a third party to do this for you. While an experienced user can run through the OpenClinica PQ scripts in two or three days, it is reasonable to expect a novice to spend a week or so on it.

The other principal element of validation is to make sure that the software development process followed a defined SDLC (Systems Development Lifecycle). Akaza’s customers do this by auditing our procedures. At a minimum, they look at our Standard Operating Procedures, and our training records. They look at records of our internal test procedures. In addition they will sometimes look at our software defect tracking systems and source code configuration management systems.

Validation of electronic record keeping systems is a labor intensive process, but is an essential element of any submission to a regulatory body. Software vendors can make the process much more efficient for their customers. At Akaza Research, that’s one of the key things we do for users of OpenClinica to ensure they are compliant with regulations such as 21 CFR Part 11.

Adventures in Web-Based Electronic Data Capture (EDC) – An OpenClinica Case Study

A recent issue of Applied Clinical Trials Online features a case study of OpenClinica Electronic Data Capture (EDC) adoption by German device company, Retina Implant, AG. Here’s a short excerpt:

“Last summer, Retina Implant started using OpenClinica for its latest trial, which is comprised of 11 studies. Currently, five of those studies have acquired subjects and are up and running with the OpenClinica CRF process. Randomization of study subjects are done outside OpenClinica, as it doesn’t have this feature. So far, Hekmat is appreciative of the flexibility of the platform, its ease of use among the global site staff, and the ability to view data in real-time via the Web browser.”

Click here for the full article.