Challenges and questions remain as the one year anniversary of the implementation of the Revised Common Rule approaches

One year has passed since the implementation of the Revised Common Rule, and many challenges and questions remain. While IRBs wait for promised guidance to materialize, we are left to interpret various aspects of the rule ourselves. This has resulted in variability across IRBs in how the new requirements are interpreted and operationalized.

Variability in the Key Information Summary

A significant area of confusion and variability relates to informed consent. The Revised Rule requires that “informed consent must begin with a concise and focused presentation of key information that is most likely to assist a prospective subject or legally authorized representative (LAR) in understanding the reasons why one might or might not want to participate in the research.”

Overall the response to the requirement for the Key Information section has been positive among IRB members since it provides an opportunity to highlight the most important information. However, significant challenges remain. IRBs have come up with a wide variety of approaches to meet this new requirement, ranging from brief paragraphs to lengthier, organized tables of information.

In our experience, industry sponsors have also not uniformly grasped the intent of this section, which is meant to be concise. Sponsor representatives often cut and paste long, complicated sections of risk language from the main body of the consent document (often multiple pages worth). This creates complex key information sections, resulting in more work for those who prepare consent documents, and more back and forth with sponsors.

Broad Consent Poses More Questions

Some additional informed consent issues that have been problematic relate to the provision of “clinically relevant research results” and under what circumstances they should be provided back to subjects, the statement regarding future use of research specimens, and the required element regarding whole genome sequencing.

Although the broad consent option was intended to give researchers better options for obtaining consent to use information and specimens for research, the fatal flaw seems to be the requirement to track refusals. Given the final rule’s definition of what was identifiable, and the removal of the concept that all biospecimens are identifiable, the need for a mechanism such as broad consent was diminished. As a result it seems that institutions are not utilizing the new broad consent option.

Institutions, particularly large medical centers with multiple facilities, still need guidance on how to operationalize the mechanism of broad consent. How far does the refusal to broad consent have to be tracked? What if an individual visited multiple facilities and gave conflicting answers to the request for broad consent? What if an individual changes their mind? Broad consent does not appear to be a great option for most research institutions at this point.

Navigating the Transition

For IRBs that have not transitioned studies that were approved prior to January 21, 2019 to the Revised Rule, another challenge is having two sets of rules to follow, as some studies fall under the pre-2018 requirements, and others under the 2018 requirements. An additional complicating factor is the lack of harmonization with FDA regulations. For many, their systems had to be customized to allow for labelling of studies so it is clear which regulations are applicable to a particular study. IRB reviewers also need to be particularly cognizant as they review multiple studies for one meeting, as there is no one set of rules to follow.

The transition to the revised Common Rule has been challenging to a community that worked under rules that remained largely unchanged for several decades. While the changes were definitely needed, and welcomed by most, there will be growing pains. As exemplified by some of the scenarios above, some areas will need to be refined as we gain experience in applying the new rules. While we patiently wait for guidance and harmonization, IRBs continue to do a magnificent job of sharing best practices among each other. At the end of the day IRBs seek to protect the rights and welfare of research participants, despite any hurdles that come along.