Gene Therapy Research — Is Your Institution Ready?

Recent news about approved immunotherapy and gene therapies has generated excitement around the possibilities of treating difficult diseases. Organizations have increased funding in this area, including a recently announced $1.3 million grant in funding by the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy for research in gliobastoma, sarcoma and ovarian cancer.

The increased attention and funding means that more research institutions may enter this exciting field of research. However, institutions may not be fully aware of the specific NIH guidelines and requirements for gene transfer research in addition to IRB review. An institution that receives NIH funding or conducts NIH funded recombinant DNA research is required to follow the NIH Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant or Synthetic Nucleic Acid Molecules (“NIH Guidelines”). Even if the funding source is a private entity, it is still advised that institutions comply with the NIH Guidelines to ensure the safety of research teams and the communities they serve.

The NIH Guidelines define human gene transfer as the deliberate transfer into human research participants of either:

  • Recombinant nucleic acid molecules
  • DNA or RNA derived from recombinant nucleic acid molecules
  • Synthetic nucleic acid molecules, or
  • DNA or RNA derived from synthetic nucleic acid molecules that meet certain criteria

An institution that engages in gene transfer must establish an institutional biosafety committee (IBC). This committee can be administered either internally (by the institution), or by an experienced external group. The IBC must have at least five members, two of whom must not be affiliated with the institution. The role of the IBC is distinct from the role of an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB’s focus is on protecting the rights and welfare of research participants, whereas the IBC assesses the containment levels, facilities, procedures, practices, and training and expertise of personnel involved in recombinant or synthetic nucleic acid molecule research.

Research involving recombinant or synthetic nucleic acid molecules requires IBC review because additional safety measures are needed. The risk assessment for these agents must be done by qualified experts experienced in biosafety guidelines, including physical and biological containment requirements. Those conducting this research need to understand and identify the biosafety level of the particular investigational agent — level one being the lowest level and level four being the highest. Each level has specific parameters that must be met with relation to precautions needed, such as containment levels, staff training requirements, and the experience required of those handling the agent.

Risk is assessed by evaluating the following:

  • Staff training — are they trained in handling the agents according to guidelines and standard operating procedures?
  • Protocol — does the protocol outline how the agents are handled, including waste precautions and decontamination procedures?
  • Recordkeeping — how are records documented and kept?
  • Procedures — how and where is the agent or drug constituted?
  • Community safety — what mitigation steps are in place to protect the community?

While the prospect and promise of human gene transfer research is exciting, institutions and researchers must understand the requirements when working with these investigational agents.

When research involving recombinant DNA is NIH funded or conducted at a site that receives NIH funding, failure to comply with the NIH Guidelines could risk that funding or result in additional requirements by NIH for the conduct of such research. Leveraging an external team of experts fluent in biosafety, the NIH Guidelines, and IBC administration can provide an immediate framework for an institution to build upon that will ensure the safety of local research teams and the surrounding communities in an ethical and efficient way.

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