Before research involving humans can commence, the ethical aspects of the research study are reviewed by local ethics boards in the United States known as Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). IRBs review many factors surrounding the ethics of research involving humans, including whether the science is valid, there is a favorable benefit-to-risk ratio, participants are recruited fairly and have retained the right to withdraw from research, privacy is protected, and the informed consent process will be performed such that participants are fully informed and understand the nature of the study. IRBs are located within institutions that perform human research such as universities and colleges, research centers, government agencies, and others. IRBs consist of individuals with a diversity of scientific, clinical, ethics, and legal expertise. The advantage of performing ethics review at the local level is that IRB members know their community, including the prevalence of health issues and the average educational level allowing them to be able to effectively communicate with community members and ensure they can access beneficial research. As trust is an essential element to voluntary community participation, an absence of it might lead to decreased enrolment in clinical trials. Knowing that a body of experts has reviewed the ethical aspects of research is likely to promote trust between participants and the research institution.
While local review certainly has its advantages, more research is being performed at multiple institutions, such as large phase 3 and 4 clinical trials that can be performed at dozens of research sites across the country. Currently, this means that researchers will have to submit their protocol to every individual IRB for approval. Several studies surrounding multisite ethics review have been performed and many question whether a more efficient system cannot be developed. Below we discuss some of the issues with multisite ethics review and outline a few reform strategies.
The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.