Trial Sponsors and Their Contract Labs: Better Collaboration via OpenClinica

At Geneuity Clinical Research Services, we do lab tests for trial sponsors. As readers of this blog know, we use OpenClinica internally as an LIS (laboratory information system), but as more and more drug companies and CRO’s adopt OpenClinica we foresee the day when we will be using their installations as our LIS, not ours.  A common platform will eliminate lots of duplicated effort and will allow for real-time transparency and better collaboration.  But it will also require sponsors to design their CRF’s with their contracting laboratories in mind.  In this article, we describe how this could be done.

First, consider specimen collection and tracking.  Normally, trial sponsors don’t consider doing this within the context of OpenClinica.  But they should.  Let’s say a specimen accidentally thaws in transit between the collection site and the contract lab.  Shouldn’t that fact be summarily recorded in the same context as the resulting lab test whose value may ultimately be reported to the FDA?  I should say so.

So, can OpenClinica be configured to do this? Yes and easily. A separate CRF dedicated to specimen collection could be designed and assigned to each event.  Alternatively, a specimen section could be added to already existing CRF’s.  Either way, fields for such things like accession number and specimen type could then be included.  These would be filled in by site personnel responsible for specimen collection.  Additional fields like ‘shipping deviations’ and ‘laboratory receipt date’ could also be included and would be filled in by lab personnel upon specimen delivery to the testing lab.  When it comes time for data analysis, the sponsor can use OpenClinica’s data export capabilities to exclude or include those lab results with shipping deviations and to investigate the consequences.

Other important aspects of specimen collection include printing labels to barcode samples and generating an attendant paper manifest (know as a requisition) against which labs can check incoming shipments of specimens.  OpenClinica can’t do such things currently.  It would require a whole new software module, but lots of added value could be achieved if one were written.  For instance, one can envision that after accessioning a specimen, site personnel could print a corresponding requisition from the same application window.  Also, imagine the time savings if lab personnel could conveniently print barcode labels after receiving a specimen and recording its receipt date and shipping deviations (if any).  And because the paper requisitions would be generated within the context of OpenClinica, subsequent source data verification by lab personnel could be expedited using QR-encoded URL’s that drill-down into the patient-event matrix. For more on this, see here.

Specimen tracking is just part of the story when it comes to sponsors and their contract labs.  Getting lab data from the laboratory testing platform into OpenClinica is another.  Recently during OpenClinica’s March 22 Global Conference in Bethesda, Akaza Research and Geneuity did a live demonstration of how this can be achieved using a set of MirthConnect channels. A batch of raw lab data keyed only to accession numbers was sent from Geneuity’s corporate headquarters in Maryville, TN to a remote OpenClinica installation hosted at Akaza’s Waltham, MA facility where it was inserted into the database programmatically via an awaiting web service. The insertion was streamlined, secure and seamless.  When setting up a trial, sponsors should think about the lessons this demo provides and consider distributing already configured and validated MirthConnect channels to their contract labs.  In this way, sponsors can control how their data is treated and understand every detail of its electronic provenance. And because MirthConnect can be configured to store its history, the trial’s audit trail can be extended upstream to the data’s very source.
Finally, consider invoicing.  Contract labs have to be paid when they do a test.  Monthly invoicing reports could be generated from OpenClinica by configuring an appropriate ‘data set’ and having it execute at the end of each month using the application’s new built-in quartz scheduler.  In this way, billing would be a snap and everybody would be on the same page.

In summary, how can trial sponsors configure OpenClinica to collaborate better with their contract labs? Do the following, keeping the workflow shown in Figure 1 in mind:

1.    Include a specimen accessioning CRF for each event.  Educate your collection-site people and your lab people as to who is responsible for which fields.  Use OpenClinica’s internal messaging system to remind people of their roles when the study is actually underway.
2.    Exploit OpenClinica’s web services framework to enable batch uploads of laboratory data.
3.    Configure and validate MirthConnect channels to get the lab results from the source data files to your OpenClinica installation.
4.    Distribute these channels to your lab contractors and educate them on their use.
5.    Configure OpenClinica to automatically generate monthly data sets for billing purposes.

The bottom-line: OpenClinica is infinitely configurable and sponsors should start doing so with their lab contractors in mind.  The result will mean both better collaboration and lower costs.

Figure 1: A specimen is collected from a subject on site. The on-site data manager logs into OpenClinica and accessions the sample and prints an accompanying hard-copy requisition. The sample is then shipped to the contracting laboratory where lab personnel log into OpenClinica and indicate they have received the sample. Specimens are then tested in batch and the results are then uploaded en masse into the sponsor's installation of OpenClinica using a thoroughly vetted, validated and auditable MirthConnect channeling system.

Pipes, Hats … and OpenClinica: Digesting HL7 in OpenClinica

If you’re an OpenClinica administrator somewhere, the chances are good somebody has asked you: “Can OpenClinica handle HL7 messaging?”

“No, it doesn’t,” you’ve said.

You probably said that with a sigh of relief because HL7 is a byzantine data exchange standard whose complexity keeps an army of consultants employed and drives neophytes like myself to madness.  The HL7 2.X specification uses eye-fatiguing pipes (“|”) and hats (“^”) as delimiters and has been referred to by experts as the “non-standard standard” (see this). Unfortunately, it is also the lingua franca of health-care messaging currently, and will likely continue to be for a long time to come.

So, it is with a heavy sense of resignation that we here at Geneuity are taking up the challenge to make OpenClinica fluent in HL7. As a contract clinical laboratory, we are particularly interested in having OpenClinica able to digest HL7 ORU messages that convey lab results.  This article details our first pass at the problem.

Our approach is shown in Figure 1.  It makes use of Mirth and a new web service in OpenClinica developed by Geneuity called EventDataInsert.  As shown, an HL7 message containing a lab result is sent by TCP to a Mirth channel which is configured to transform it into a SOAP message palatable to EventDataInsert.  EventDataInsert reads the message and then sees if the specimen has already been accessioned into OpenClinica.  If so, it inserts the data into the underlying database and signals a successful entry.  If not, it does nothing and signals a rejection.  These signals are transmitted back to Mirth which issues a standard HL7 acknowledgment (ACK) message coded with either ‘AA’ for ‘Application Accept’ or ‘AR’ for ‘Application Reject’.  It is the responsibility of whoever (or whatever) sent the HL7 message in the first place to follow up when a lab result is rejected.

To develop this strategy, we used several tools.  To generate HL7 test messages, we utilized the HL7 generator (freely available here) made by the people responsible for the ELINCS initiative.  To send and receive HL7 messages to and from Mirth via TCP, we used Netcat, another freely available utility.

And there you have it!  Of course, the HL7 standard covers much more than the delivery of lab results, but this exercise is most relevant to our concerns and represents an important first step in making OpenClinica talk the talk when it comes to HL7.

HL7 Strategy for OpenClinica

Figure 1:  HL7 Strategy for OpenClinica

First, a HL7 message conveying lab results is sent to a Mirth channel listening for TCP requests.  Mirth parses the message and transforms it into a SOAP message which it then hands off to the EventDataInsert webservice listening within OpenClinica.  EventDataInsert looks to see if the specimen to which the lab result pertains has been accessioned into OpenClinica’s underlying database.  If so, it inserts the results and signals back to Mirth that fact.  If not, it enters nothing and signals back to Mirth that it did nothing.  Mirth digests these signals and sends back to the sender an appropriately configured ACK message via TCP.

Rapid Deployment of New Functionality in OpenClinica Using MirthConnect

In a previous article, we describe how we at Geneuity Clinical Research Services exploit OpenClinica’s new web services feature to automate the entry of lab data keyed to accession numbers.  Here, we describe more fully how and why we use MirthConnect.

Started in 2006, MirthConnect is an open source project sponsored by the Mirth Corporation of Irvine, CA.  It is middleware designed to transform, route and deliver data.  It supports HL7, X12, XML, DICOM, EDI, NCPDP and plain old delimited text.  It can route via MLLP, TCP/IP, HTTP, files, databases, S/FTP, Email, JMS, Web Services, PDF/RTF Documents and custom Java/JavaScript.  MirthConnect has been likened to a Swiss army knife and justifiably so.

Channels are the heart and soul of a MirthConnect installation.  A channel is user defined and has a source and a destination.  A source may be a flat file residing on a remote server or a web service call or a database query or even another channel—whatever you like, it doesn’t matter. A destination may be to write a PDF document, email somebody an attachment or enter data into a database.  Again, whatever!

To illustrate, say you want to poll a database and generate a weekly report.  No sweat! Using MirthConnect’s easy-to-use drag-and-drop template-based editor, define a channel with a database reader as a source, and a document writer as a destination, fill in details like user names, passwords and machine names, define which database fields you want to retrieve and how you want to display the data, and you’re done!  MirthConnect’s daemon handles the rest based on your channel’s configuration.

Once defined, a channel can be exported as XML for later import into another MirthConnect installation.  This is all done with the point and a click of a mouse.

At Geneuity, we use MirthConnect to get data in and out of OpenClinica.  Originally, we used custom JAVA code to do this.  But once we found MirthConnect, we quickly realized we were reinventing the wheel.  Why do that?

Here’s a concrete example.  Consider the very simple CRF from a mock OpenClinica installation shown in Figure 1.  It has three groups of items: accessioning, results and reportage.  When a specimen arrives at Geneuity, the lab tech looks up the patient and event pairing in the subject matrix as specified by the requisition and types into the CRF the accession number, the receipt date and any shipping deviations.  This is done by hand and is indicated as step 1 of Figure 2.

Then, as shown in step 2 of Figure 2, the tech tests the specimen at the testing platform.  In step 3, the platform spits out the data whereupon a collection of MirthConnect channels operating in tandem parses the results, transforms them into SOAP messages and sends them to the EventDataInsertEndpoint web service feature of OpenClinica for upload into the CRF fields designated ‘Assay date’ and ‘Analyte concentration’.

After the tech reviews the data and marks it complete, another collection of channels polls the database for results newly marked complete, generates and delivers PDF reports of the corresponding data (step 4) and then reports back to OpenClinica (step 5) via EventDataInsert the details of the reportage, including status, time and any errors (see the third and last item grouping labeled ‘REPORTAGE’ in Figure 1).

The scenario outlined above requires NO CUSTOM CODE beyond the channel configurations and these are encapsulated and standardized by design.  As such, you don’t need an army of coders on staff to develop and maintain them.

Both OpenClinica and MirthConnect are great as standalone products.  Linked together, however, they really sizzle.

Figure 1: A simple CRF from a mock OpenClinica installation
Figure 1: A simple CRF from a mock OpenClinica installation
Figure 2: This shows how the different item groupings in the CRF depicted in Figure 1 are populated.  Values for items under ACCESSIONING are entered manually by the lab tech.  Values for items under RESULTS are populated by the Mirth channels continuously listening for in-coming data from the clinical testing platform.  Values for items under REPORTAGE are populated by a distinct set of  Mirth channels responsible for polling and reporting newly completed results.
Figure 2: This shows how the different item groupings in the CRF depicted in Figure 1 are populated. Values for items under ACCESSIONING are entered manually by the lab tech. Values for items under RESULTS are populated by the Mirth channels continuously listening for in-coming data from the clinical testing platform. Values for items under REPORTAGE are populated by a distinct set of Mirth channels responsible for polling and reporting newly completed results.

OpenClinica and the Paper Chase: A Case Study

The developers of OpenClinica like to say they are ‘powering the electronic data capture (EDC) revolution’ in clinical data management and indeed that’s the case.  However, sometimes there’s no substitute for paper, especially when it comes to tracking and handling laboratory specimens.  We at Geneuity should know: testing lab specimens for clinical trials is our business.  This article shows how OpenClinica and paper records can augment one another through the use of URL-encoding barcodes.

Readers of this blog probably already know the drill:  a specimen is collected, a paper requisition is attached and the whole kit and kaboodle is mailed to a laboratory for testing.  When a specimen arrives at Geneuity, we log into OpenClinica’s web interface, look up the patient and event pairing in the subject matrix as specified by the requisition and then finally type in the values for items like accession number, receipt date, shipping deviations, freezer location and the like.  When one or two specimens arrive, this process (called ‘accessioning’) is no problem; when 20 to 60 arrive, it rapidly becomes tedious.

In a more perfect world, things would be easier and more automated.  Here’s one potential scenario to help achieve this.  In addition to all the necessary information in human-readable form, also print on the requisition a QR barcode that encodes the URL corresponding to the appropriate event case report form (CRF) in the study’s OpenClinica installation.  For instance, consider the example shown in Figure 1.

It encodes: “https://myOpenClinicaInstall.com/InitialDataEntry?eventCRFId=1” (for illustration only, not intended to link anywhere for real).  Upon being scanned with an appropriate hand-held reader (or smart-phone even), this would automatically direct the lab technician’s browser to the correct screen to input the attendant accessioning information for study event number one.  This would eliminate the manual look-up step described above and would reduce tedium and errors as a consequence.

Implementing this idea would require enabling OpenClinica to print out requisitions.  While challenging, this would not be impossible.  Indeed, middle-ware like MirthConnect may make it relatively easy.

Here’s another example of paper and OpenClinica working together, one that Geneuity actually implements currently to facilitate quality control.  Prior to testing a batch of specimens, lab technicians here use a custom Mirth channel to print out details of the samples to be tested.  A dummy example is shown in Figure 2.  As shown, it includes a simple linear barcode of the accession number, the principle means of tracking specimens in a clinical lab.  Scanning this saves the technician from having to type it into the testing platform during set-up.  It also contains a QR barcode specifying the event-specific URL that directs the technician where to go to review the data upon automatic upload into OpenClinica.  Having this URL handy means the technician doesn’t have to look it up in the subject matrix table which oftentimes has hundreds or even thousands of entries.

URL-encoding barcodes are a cheap and reliable way of linking physical objects with on-line databases, and nowhere is this link more critical than when tracking clinical specimens.  Thanks to Akaza’s commitment to open source, it’s easy to incorporate this technology into OpenClinica and to realize the myriad of benefits.

Figure 1: a QR barcode encoding an event-specific URL in a mock OpenClinica installation
Figure 1: a QR barcode encoding an event-specific URL in a mock OpenClinica installation
Figure 2: A list of specimens to be tested reported by a Mirth channel extracting from a mock OpenClinica installation.  The linear barcode helps with data entry at the testing platform while the 2D QR barcode is used to direct the lab tech's browser to the appropriate URL in OpenClinica for subsequent data review after testing is complete.
Figure 2: A list of specimens to be tested reported by a Mirth channel extracting from a mock OpenClinica installation. The linear barcode helps with data entry at the testing platform while the 2D QR barcode is used to direct the lab tech's browser to the appropriate URL in OpenClinica for subsequent data review after testing is complete.

Facilitated Data Entry of Lab Results Using OpenClinica’s New Web Services Feature

As mentioned previously, we at Geneuity Clinical Research Services are big fans of OpenClinica and are even more so now with the upcoming release of version 3.0 with its new web services capability.  This article describes how we exploit this new feature to help automate entry of lab results, a particularly important topic given that we do lots of batch testing of specimens and oftentimes test the same specimen for many different analytes.

Prior to 3.0, you had three options when it came to CRF data entry.  The first was to log into OpenClinica’s web interface and manually enter your data.  This was no problem so long as you didn’t have lots and lots of data.  But we did.

Alternatively, you could upload a flat file of your data as long as it was formatted in XML and associated with the appropriate subject id’s and visit descriptions.  Assembling this file wasn’t trivial though and manually looking up each specimen’s subject and event nearly defeated the purpose of the procedure, which was to save time and effort.

Finally, you could do what we did: write custom code to automate the job.  Lab data is amenable to this sort of approach because it is always tagged with something called an accession number that uniquely identifies it.  When designing CRF’s, we always make sure to include a field for the event’s accession number, and when a specimen first arrives through our door the first thing we do is to log into OpenClinica and enter the specimen’s accession number in the appropriate event’s CRF.  Because the number is unique to the study, this entry effectively tags the event and provides a ‘hook’ inside the database so that the event_crf_id of any data item subsequently  annotated with the accession number can be easily looked up using a database query like so: ‘SELECT event_crf_id FROM item_data WHERE value = ‘<accession_number>’.  This, in turn, gives you the requisite information to insert the lab data thusly: ‘INSERT INTO item_data VALUES (‘event_crf_id’, ‘value’ …’ provided you also know the item_id.

To implement this strategy, we wrote custom servlets that operated within the context of our OpenClinica installations.  More recently, we configured MirthConnect channels to do the same.   They worked well and data entry was greatly expedited, but the coding was complex and had to be refactored over and over again for each study and for every CRF change.  While helpful, this strategy wasn’t sustainable in the long run.

Luckily, the latest version of OpenClinica provides a way out.  It incorporates the Spring WS Framework which allows programmers to write something called a ‘web service.’  A web service digests and acts upon XML data sent to it on an on-demand basis over a network.  The source need not be a human being uploading data on a web form, but, more usefully, it can be, say, a clinical testing platform automatically spitting out HL7 messages.  This, of course, is ideal in our case.  So we wrote a web service called ‘EventDataInsert’ that parses XML containing lab data values annotated with accession numbers and item names, looks up the corresponding event_crf_id’s and item_id’s, and inserts the data into item_data accordingly.  The service is generic enough so that it doesn’t have to be refactored for each and every study, but it does make some critical assumptions.  Namely, it assumes that both accession numbers and item names are unique.  So care has to be taken to ensure both these preconditions are met.

The power of EventDataInsert doesn’t just lie in the fact that it handles inserts on an unattended basis, but also in that, like most web services, it requires only simple XML as input.  The latter makes the source of the data irrelevant as long as it can be correctly mapped and transformed into XML.  We often use MirthConnect to do this, using it’s easy-to-use graphical interface to configure channels between incoming raw data and OpenClinica’s web-service interfaces.

The figure below shows a typical deployment of OpenClinica at Geneuity.  MirthConnect is used not only to get data into OpenClinica but also to generate canned PDF reports of the results.  This scenario works for us and gets easier and easier to maintain as OpenClinica evolves new electronic data capture features and makes old ones ever more robust.

Diagram of OpenClinica at Genuity Clinical Research Services
Diagram of OpenClinica at Genuity Clinical Research Services