Clinical Research in Vulnerable Populations: Variability and Focus of Institutional Review Boards' Responses

PLoS One. 2015 Aug 14;10(8):e0135997. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135997. eCollection 2015.


Background: Children and patients with cognitive deficits may find it difficult to understand the implication of research. In the European Union (EU), clinical studies outside the EU directives concerning medicinal products or medical devices, i.e., "miscellaneous clinical studies", have no legally mandated timelines for institutional review boards' (IRB) decisions.

Goal: To evaluate the review process of IRBs for two different "miscellaneous" multicenter clinical research protocols involving vulnerable subjects (children and adult stroke patients).

Methods: Descriptive and comparative statistics. Protocol 1 is a prospective, multicenter, cross-sectional screening study of a symptomatic pediatric population at risk for Fabry disease involving genetic testing (NCT02152189). Protocol 2 is a prospective, multicenter, randomized, controlled, open-label, blinded endpoint post-market study to evaluate the effectiveness of stent retrievers (NCT02135926). After having obtained positive initial IRB votes at the main study site, both protocols were subsequently submitted to the remaining IRBs.

Results: Protocol 1 was submitted to 19 IRBs. No IRB objected to the study. Median time-to-final vote was 34 (IQR 10-65; range 0 to 130) days. Two IRBs accepted the coordinating center's IRB votes without re-evaluation. Changes to the informed consent documents were asked by 7/19 IRBs, amendments to the protocol by 2. Protocol 2 was submitted to 16 IRBs. Fifteen decisions were made. No IRB objected to the study. Median time-to final vote was 59 (IQR 10 to 65; range 0 to 128) days, which was not statistically significantly different compared with protocol 1 (Wilcoxon test). Two IRBs accepted a previous IRB decision and did not conduct an independent review. Eight/16 IRBs required changes to the informed consent documents; two IRBs recommended an amendment of the protocol.

Conclusion: Both clinical research protocols involving vulnerable populations were well accepted. IRB workflows and decision times varied substantially. Some IRBs accepted a previous IRB decision without the necessity of another reevaluation process. Requested changes were focused on the informed consent documents. A more standardized approach across jurisdictions is desirable.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Ethics Committees, Research*
  • European Union*
  • Fabry Disease / genetics*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Stents*

Associated data


Grant support

Study 1 was supported by Shire. Study 2 was supported by Stryker and Covidien. We acknowledge the financial support of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg within the funding programme Open Access Publishing. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.