NIH Announces Consortium to Streamline Gene Therapy Research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced this week that they were joining forces with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ten pharmaceutical companies and five non-profit organizations to accelerate the development of gene therapies for rare diseases. The new public-private partnership, called the Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium, aims to overcome obstacles and streamline the process of developing therapies that could treat diseases that collectively impact millions of people.

The consortium will fund basic and clinical research from a five-year budget of $76 million. This represents an opportunity for investigators. For institutions interested in participating in the expected clinical trials, it may be time to revisit their policies for biosafety and gene transfer. Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBC) are required at institutions that conduct NIH-funded recombinant DNA, or gene therapy, research.

An IBC is concerned for the protection of not only research subjects, but also staff and communities in which the research takes place. The committee has oversight for establishing, monitoring, and enforcing policies and procedures for handling biohazardous materials, such as recombinant DNA.

An IBC works in parallel with an Institutional Review Board (IRB), with special attention to risk assessment for areas including:

  • Study agent
  • Containment levels and procedures required to safely handle the study agent
  • Preparedness of the facility and its personnel
  • Potential impact to the environment

Activities of the IBC include:

  • Review agent characteristics (e.g. virulence, pathogenicity, environmental stability)
  • Determining the appropriate biosafety level for physical and biological containment, as required by the NIH Guidelines
  • Inspection of facilities, procedures, and practices
  • Evaluating the training and experience of the personnel involved in the research
  • Confirming appropriate policies and procedures are in place for handling spills or accidents to minimize exposure to or contamination from any potentially hazardous material
  • Reporting significant events or violations to regulatory authorities including NIH and institutional officials
  • File an annual report with the NIH

NIH requires that an IBC have at least five members who collectively have broad experience and expertise that allows them to conduct such assessments. This may include members with technical expertise in potentially hazardous biological materials, human research protocols, regulatory requirements, and in the health and protection of the community and environment. Additionally, at least two members must be unaffiliated with the organization conducting the research, and these members should represent the interest of the surrounding community with respect to health and protection of the environment.

The establishment and funding of the Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium will increase the opportunity for investigators to participate in basic and clinical research to address significant unmet medical needs of patients. The safe conduct of experiments involving recombinant or synthetic nucleic acid molecules depends on the individual conducting such activities, as well as having appropriate safety mechanisms at the institutional level.

BRANY offers IBC services that can help expedite the review of research that involves recombinant DNA (“rDNA”) or synthetic nucleic acid molecules, or DNA or RNA derived from recombinant or synthetic nucleic acid molecules, providing rigorous biosafety oversight so that institutions can focus their efforts on scientific research and advancement. Contact us for more information.

The Importance of Real-time Data and Safety Monitoring

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine Houston announced this week that they were stopping a clinical trial investigating the efficacy of convalescent plasma therapy in the treatment of patients with COVID-19. The reason, according to the principal investigator, was that statisticians had deemed the NIH-funded study to be futile. In other words, even with more patients enrolled in the study, the experts monitoring the data did not believe there was a realistic chance that convalescent plasma therapy would demonstrate efficacy.

Behind the headline is another important consideration: the importance for Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to ensure that studies they approve have strong data and safety monitoring plans (DSMP). Data and safety monitoring functions are distinct from the requirement for study review and approval by an Institutional Review Board (IRB).

“Since IRB review occurs only at certain intervals, real-time data monitoring is typically done by a formal Data Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) or another similar independent committee, as designated by the DSMP,” according to Linda Reuter, BRANY’s IRB Director. “As such, it is crucial for IRBs to consider the IRB approval criteria that risks to subjects are minimized and the research plan makes adequate provision for monitoring the data collected to ensure the safety of subjects by confirming that there is a plan to analyze the data at the appropriate intervals.”

“The IRB must determine that the provisions for data and safety monitoring are appropriate in order to approve a protocol,” adds Raffaella Hart, BRANY’s Sr Vice President for IRB and IBC Services. “Clinical trials should have a provision for data and safety monitoring that corresponds to the risks of the study.” The NIH has guidance on determining which studies require a Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB). Multi-site clinical trials involving interventions that entail potential risk to the participants require DSMBs.

Review by an independent monitoring committee is especially important for multicenter clinical trials, as data from one site may not be enough to notice a safety signal at an early stage, but when data from multiple sites are aggregated and analyzed by the safety committee certain safety signals may become evident.

The method and degree of monitoring varies from one clinical trial to another and is based on the degree of risk involved, as well as the size and complexity of the trial. While not all clinical trials require a data and safety monitoring board, the NIH does set minimum standards for monitoring, including ensuring that monitoring is timely and effective and that those responsible for monitoring have the appropriate expertise to accomplish its mission. Monitoring plans typically include the following:

  • Safety reporting requirements and procedures
  • Rules for when to conduct interim analyses to assess safety and/or efficacy
  • How the study will comply with any applicable regulatory requirements
  • How the study will monitor site performance, including patient recruitment
  • How to protect data integrity and participant confidentiality
  • Statistical analysis procedures

Data and Safety Monitoring Board determines the safe and effective conduct of the trial, and establishes rules for deciding when it may be time to conclude the trial. The committee makes this important decision based on evaluating if significant benefits or risks have developed or the trial is unlikely to be concluded successfully. This was the case in the above-mentioned plasma therapy trial.  DSMBs should include clinical trial experts, biostatisticians, bioethicists, and clinicians knowledgeable about the disease and treatment under study. Ideally, members should not have a vested interest in the outcome of the study, in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

“Early and ongoing data analysis is critical to the safety and protection of study participants,” says Ms. Reuter.

Critical Considerations for Remote Clinical Trials

Even as research centers and academic institutions re-open after shutdowns due to COVID-19, many researchers are looking at ways to use remote technologies in their clinical trials. In South Carolina, for example, nicotine addiction researchers[1] are examining how to enroll smokers in their studies. They are evaluating e-consents, online surveys and questionnaires, as well as smartphone-enabled devices.

 

Patient Enrollment

Historically, patient enrollment in clinical research has been a significant challenge. According to research by the National Institutes of Health, 80 percent of clinical trials fail to reach their enrollment goals within the prescribed timelines. Some sites fail to recruit a single participant.

Social media is a promising way to recruit potential research subjects. With its current ubiquity, social media enables researchers to reach broad populations and target subjects based on personal information. They can also reach physicians and other clinical practitioners to inform them of new trials.

However, there are important risks to manage, including privacy and transparency. Researchers who join online patient communities — for example, those focused on a particular diagnosis — should be clear of their role.

Learn more about Social Media and Research Recruitment in this webinar: Citi Program course informed consent and clinical investigations a focus on the process

Electronic Consents

Obtaining informed consent via electronic methods involves more than just video conferencing technology. E-consents require an adjustment in processes, which can be an adjustment for research coordinators or others obtaining consent. Proper training on process is critical to ensure informed consent is obtained appropriately and the rights and welfare of human subjects are continually protected.

Implementing e-consent also requires assurance that the technology platforms are in compliance with FDA requirements for electronic signatures. Institutions must consider issues such as privacy and data security.

Learn more about remote informed consent: https://www.brany.com/telehealth-clinical-research-and-informed-consent/

 

Virtual Patient Visits and Wearables

Investigators who are writing protocols must consider opportunities for virtual patient visits that will minimize exposure to clinical environments such as hospitals and clinics. The use of telemedicine technologies has exploded in 2020, as clinicians worked to maintain continuity of care during lockdown.

One critical element to consider for virtual patient visits is to include them in the budget. Recent news reports[2] about insurance coverage of telemedicine visits demonstrate some shifts in reimbursement.

To monitor patients’ vital signs and other data in real-time, some investigators are turning to mobile apps and wearable devices. The use of these technologies presents challenges with regard to privacy. Many of these devices and third-party apps have their own user agreements that require careful review, as they may be in conflict with certain privacy requirements or the terms of use may need to be explained to patients during the informed consent process.

COVID-19 presented many challenges to clinical researchers. But it also offered many opportunities to revolutionize how investigators think about writing protocols, and how patients can enroll and participate in them. The landscape continues to shift rapidly, and requires careful monitoring to ensure both compliance and patient protection.

[1] https://www.news-medical.net/news/20200930/Researchers-explore-remote-methods-for-conducting-smoking-cessation-clinical-trials.aspx

[2] https://www.statnews.com/2020/09/29/united-healthcare-anthem-telemedicine-coverage-insurers/

Lessons Learned (so far) in COVID-19

Even as communities start the process of evaluating re-opening, many experts believe that a new normal will be with us for a long time. Physical distancing, face masks and ubiquitous alcohol gel will be part of daily life. The risk of recurrence spikes also looms ahead and threatens a return to stricter “stay at home” orders. Health care and higher education institutions continue to evaluate risks and will likely continue to encourage employees, including IRB and research administration staff, to work from home in order to maintain physical distancing. Research office staff have made incredibly quick adjustments in real time as the pandemic made its way through the United States.

In assisting our partners and clients make rapid changes, we learned some lessons we believe will help research institutions be more resilient in the months and even years to come.

Prepare for the unexpected

Disaster planning and business continuity are required for organizations receiving National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. But even non-NIH funded research institutions should have robust business continuity plans in place. The elements of a disaster plan include issues such as data security and protecting human subjects.

Leverage technology

Many organizations scrambled to get their staff up and running from impromptu home offices. From installing and learning video conference platforms to having documentation securely available online, many research professionals quickly adapted to new ways of working and collaborating despite the learning curve.

Research institutions and investigators should consider building in these technologies as a part of their daily operations:

Build in flexibility

Many research institutions pivoted their resources toward COVID-19 research efforts. This means that internal resources are unavailable for ongoing work or pending projects. Being able to shift that work to external resources, including IRBs, allows for flexibility to respond quickly as situations evolve.

External IRB partners should offer processes and procedures for running IRB meetings virtually in compliance with regulatory requirements. They should also hold frequent meetings, with the ability to hold ad-hoc meetings as needed.

Other functions can be outsourced to strategic partners, particularly when rapid turnarounds are required. These include the development and management of study budgets, coverage analysis, and clinical trial agreement support.

Select the right partners

The historic scope of impact on the research community at every level demonstrates weaknesses in every system, including partnerships. As with any disaster, communication is often the first thing to fail. Tightly synchronized communication with responsive partners who act as an extension of the research team can be the difference between an inconvenience and a very costly mistake.

Research institutions have demonstrated great resilience in their response to COVID-19, and have continued to focus on human subject protection throughout their efforts. There is talk of a “new normal” in the aftermath of the pandemic. These lessons learned can help institutions retain the integrity of their research while remaining responsive to what may be a long-standing landscape in the months or years to come.

Taking Advantage of NIH Funding Increases for Investigator-Initiated Clinical Research Requires Thoughtful Protocol Writing

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the approval of a budget appropriation bill for funding through September 2020. In it, the NIH receives $41.68 billion in funding, an increase of $2.6 billion from FY 2019. For NIH, the new budget appropriation includes $500 million for the All of Us precision medicine study and a $25 million increase for HIV/AIDS research. It also included a $350 million increase for targeted Alzheimer’s research, $50 million to support pediatric cancer research, and $212.5 million to increase funding for adult cancer research.

The 2020 appropriation includes grant funding for both early stage and clinical research. One of the challenges in grant submission related to clinical research is developing a well thought out clinical trial protocol that can meet both scientific and regulatory requirements. Some investigators, particularly ones earlier in their career, may feel daunted by the process of writing a protocol.

Having an easy-to-follow, step-by-step protocol-writing tool can promote adherence to regulations and streamline the institutional review processes. Many institutions have developed protocol writing templates for investigators. Unfortunately, many of them are basic word processing documents and can be unwieldy and long, frustrating protocol writers. A cloud-based, guided experience can assist both seasoned protocol writers and those new to protocol writing, such as medical residents.

Physician investigators and medical residents are not the only ones who may benefit from such a tool. Doctoral students in nursing, physical therapy and other allied health fields are discovering that to complete certification in their fields, they must participate in clinical research.

Additionally, a cloud-based protocol writing system allows closer collaboration with co-investigators or research advisors. By engaging collaborators early in the protocol-writing process, investigators benefit from the shared ‘creative thinking’ that is critical to scientific development.

As institutions, including medical centers, support residents and early career investigators, they may wish to consider a more robust solution than Word templates. In identifying and selecting a tool, they should consider the following questions:

  • Does the tool allow easy collaboration with mentors or co-investigators?
  • Is it a guided experience, offering assistance and education throughout the process?
  • Can it be customized to suit the requirements of the individual institution?
  • Does it maintain an audit trail of changes?

These and other critical questions can help institutions evaluate the best protocol-writing tools. By supporting investigators in medicine and allied health fields, institutions can realize the benefits of clearly-articulated protocols. This, in turn, may help increase opportunities for developing well thought-out investigator-initiated clinical protocols that can help strengthen a grant submission.

Interested in protocol-writing tools? Check out Protocol Builder by BRANY.

 

New CITI Program Courses and Webinar Help Researchers and Institutions Meet Regulatory Requirements

(Miami, FL) — The Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI Program), a division of BRANY, has announced new online courses and webinars designed to help research professionals understand and comply with regulatory requirements for clinical trials.

The three courses and webinars address critical regulatory requirements:

  • Transitioning research to the Revised Common Rule
  • Protocol registration and disclosure on ClinicalTrials.gov
  • The role of principal investigators in meeting regulatory requirements

Transitioning Research to the Revised Common Rule: The What, How, and Why, a webinar that outlines considerations and challenges for transitioning pre-existing research to the revised Common Rule, as well as required documentation and tips for IRB review, is offered to both institutions and individual learners.

Designed for research professionals, including investigators, institutional review boards and research staff, the webinar reviews pre-2018 and 2018 versions of the Common Rule, including factors an organization may want to consider when deciding whether to transition a pre-existing study (or studies) to comply with the revised Common Rule, and strategies for the management and communication of transition decisions.

The webinar is presented by Karen Christianson, RN, BSN, a principal with HRP Consulting Group.

Recently published research demonstrates that many research institutions are not prepared to meet current requirements for registering and reporting clinical trials. A new course addresses this gap.

Protocol Registration and Results Summary Disclosure in ClinicalTrials.gov, an innovative video-enhanced course, guides learners through critical parts of the regulations and provides a step-by-step guide to data entry. This course can help organizations/investigators clearly understand protocol registration requirements to avoid the risk of significant civil monetary penalties or loss of NIH grant funding due to non-compliance with protocol registration and results reporting.

Biomedical PI focuses on key topics essential to the biomedical investigator’s role and responsibilities in conducting a clinical investigation of a product regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This role-based course covers supervision, delegation, management, reports, and communication for investigators.

These courses, along with dozens of others available at CITIprogram.org, train investigators and research professionals to understand and meet research ethics standards and compliance requirements.

About CITI Program

The Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI Program), a division of BRANY, is dedicated to promoting the public’s trust in the research enterprise by providing high quality, peer-reviewed, web-based educational courses in research, ethics, regulatory oversight, responsible conduct of research, research administration, and other topics pertinent to the interests of member organizations and individual learners.

 

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.

NIH’s Final Policy on Single Institutional Review Boards Has Widespread Implications for Research Institutions

The NIH has released its final policy on the use of central IRBs for multi-site research. Starting May 2017, in multi-site studies in the United States involving non-exempt human subjects research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), research institutions will be expected to use a single Institutional Review Board (sIRB) to conduct the ethical review required by the Department of Health and Human Services regulations for the Protection of Human Subjects at 45 CFR Part 46. Limited exceptions to the rule are provided, primarily to accommodate prohibitions established by federal, tribal, or state laws, regulations, or policies.

As stated by NIH, the goal of the policy is to “enhance and streamline the IRB review process in the context of multisite research so that research can proceed as effectively and expeditiously as possible. Eliminating duplicative IRB review is expected to reduce unnecessary administrative burdens and systemic inefficiencies without diminishing human subjects protections. The shift in workload away from conducting redundant reviews is also expected to allow IRBs to concentrate more time and attention on the review of single site protocols, thereby enhancing research oversight.”

Institutions applying for grants to fund multi-site research will need to submit a plan describing the use of an sIRB that will be selected to serve as the IRB of record for all study sites. The policy outlines several other administrative responsibilities for the institution (applicant).

Participating sites also have specific responsibilities. For example, they are responsible for meeting other regulatory obligations, such as obtaining informed consent, overseeing the implementation of the approved protocol, and reporting unanticipated problems and study progress to the sIRB.

Thousands of investigators, patient advocacy groups, institutions and others filed comments with the agency during the public comment period. Some commenters expressed concerns that the proposed policy does not recognize the time and effort needed to identify and establish a single IRB of record, including negotiating and executing authorization agreements and standard operating procedures, conducting study initiation meetings, creating account activities, and modifying information technology (IT) systems.

HRP is prepared to help institutions comply with the new policy

HRP has helped institutions to establish and implement procedures to comply with regulations, policies, and accreditation standards and to ensure appropriate local oversight of research and protection of human subjects. Despite relying on an sIRB, organizations still hold overall responsibility for the oversight and conduct of the research. HRP can partner with you to develop reliance agreements that meet the needs of all parties and to develop internal processes to ensure that all organizational responsibilities are fulfilled while streamlining the process. HRP’s expertise includes:

  • Development of customized policies, procedures, forms and checklists
  • Evaluation and development of human research protection programs (HRPPs), policies, and processes
  • Evaluation and development of IRB policies and processes
  • Training and education

BRANY offers a “Connected IRB”

BRANY offers an AAHRPP-accredited IRB to institutions. BRANY IRB’s experience with a wide variety of institutions and sponsors has led to the development of the unique “Connected IRB” model. Understanding that institutions need to remain connected to the research conducted throughout their organization, BRANY includes in its processes the mechanisms to keep key institutional personnel apprised of all pertinent research matters throughout the course of a clinical research study.

This policy represents a significant shift in how protocol reviews are conducted for federally funded research. Institutions needing assistance in this transition can rely on their partners at HRP Consulting and at BRANY.