Well-publicized lapses in the review or implementation of clinical research studies have raised public questions about the integrity of the clinical research process. Public trust in the integrity of research is critical not only for funding and participation in clinical trials but also for confidence in the treatments that result from the trials. The questions raised by these unfortunate cases pose an important opportunity to reassess the clinical trials oversight system to ensure the integrity of clinical research and the safety of those who enroll in clinical trials. Since its inception, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has worked for the advancement of cancer treatments through clinical research and to help patients gain prompt access to scientifically excellent and ethically unimpeachable clinical trials. As an extension of its mission, ASCO is affirming with this policy statement the critical importance of a robust review and oversight system to ensure that clinical trials participants give fully informed consent and that their safety is a top priority. Ensuring the integrity of research cannot be stressed enough because of its seminal connection to the advancement of clinical cancer treatment. The overall goal of this policy is to enhance public trust in the cancer clinical trials process. To achieve this, the following elements are essential: 1. Ensure safety precautions for clinical trial participants and their fully informed consent. 2. Ensure the validity and integrity of scientific research. 3. Enhance the educational training of clinical scientists and research staff to ensure the highest standards of research conduct. 4. Promote accountability and responsibility among all those involved in clinical research (not just those serving on institutional review boards [IRBs], but also institutional officials, researchers, sponsors, and participants) and ensure support for an effective oversight process. 5. Enhance the professional and public understanding of clinical research oversight. 6. Enhance the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the clinical research oversight system. This policy statement makes recommendations in several areas that serve as principles to support an improved system of oversight for clinical research. ASCO will work with all parties involved in the clinical research system to develop the steps necessary to implement these recommendations. Centralized Trial Review: A large percentage of oncology clinical trials are coordinated through the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) system of cooperative groups, which already incorporates centralized scientific review. As such, there is a tremendous opportunity to employ a centralized mechanism to provide ethical review by highly trained IRB members, allowing local IRBs to take advantage of the financial and time efficiencies that central review provides. Centralized review boards (CRBs) would also contribute consistency and efficiency to the process. Once successfully completed, the review would represent an approval to open the protocol at all of the institutions that have subscribed to the centralized review system. Local IRBs would be able to devote time usually spent on initial review to ongoing monitoring of the trial taking place at their institution. Considering the enormous size and complexity of the clinical research enterprise, ASCO envisions multiple CRBs, which could be distributed as regional review boards. Central review will use a single protocol and consent form, and monitor and evaluate adverse events (AEs) on a global basis, eliminating many of the time-consuming steps for the local IRB. Global monitoring and assessment of AEs has real potential to enhance trial participants' safety by giving local institutions more information on the overall trial and enabling them to devote more time to ongoing review of the trial onsite. Use of a CRB also has real potential to reduce the costs of clinical trial oversight by allowing local IRBs to eliminate the costs of initial review. These efficiencies will likely lead to institutions redirecting funds toward monitoring ongoing trials. Although a CRB has potential to improve the efficiency of the process, a CRB could also have tremendous ability to delay valuable trials. Checks and balances must be included in the newly devised system to ensure timely review and appeals of CRB actions. ASCO proposes the advent of a new pilot program for centralizing review of clinical trials. It requires clear engagement of all stakeholders in planning the experiment, clear articulation of the goals, and assurance of federal regulatory protection for institutions choosing to participate. If successful, this CRB pilot project could be expanded to include multi-institutional industry-sponsored research. Education and Training:Education and training are critical to the ultimate success of an improved oversight system. All members of the research team should receive comprehensive education on conducting scientifically and ethically valid clinical research. The curriculum should also include information on the prevailing local and federal regulations that pertain to the clinical trials process. IRB members should also receive ongoing education and training in the review of clinical research protocols. IRB training should pay particular attention to nonscientific members to give them the tools necessary to speak on behalf of research participants. ASCO should develop a curriculum that focuses on the proper conduct of human research and emphasize ethically sound clinical research in the context of its Annual Meeting. Informed Consent: Investigators and review boards have specific roles to play in ensuring the education of trial participants through the informed consent process, both when they are considering trial enrollment and as they participate in the trial. Review boards and investigators should focus primarily on the informed consent process, rather than the informed consent documents. Federal Oversight: The federal government has an important role to play in the oversight of clinical research. This role should be expanded to cover all research, not just that which is funded by the federal government or conducted with the oversight of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and the FDA should provide clear regulatory support and guidance for local institutions that choose to employ a CRB. In the case of the pilot CRB discussed in this policy statement, it should serve as the preferred option for the cancer cooperative group clinical trials. Ideally, the federal government should unify and streamline its regulations for the oversight of clinical research. Resources Supporting Clinical Research Infrastructure:An effective oversight process demands the highest quality scientific and ethical review and onsite monitoring of the safety of trial participants. This can only be accomplished by the involvement of an experienced IRB that receives funding, resources, and institutional support enabling it to fulfill its mandate.
Conflict of interest: Critical to the integrity of research is the absence of bias in the process. ASCO strongly recommends the adoption of standards for the identification, management, and, where appropriate, elimination of conflicts of interests, whether they are actual, potential, or apparent.