Revised Common Rule strengthened human-subject protections, simplified IRB oversight simplified

In January 2017, the regulations for ethical conduct of human research, known as the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects and referred to as the Common Rule, were updated to better protect human subjects involved in research, while facilitating valuable research and reducing burden, delay, and ambiguity for investigators (82 FR 7149, January 19, 2017). In addition, the revisions modernize and simplify the current system of independent review board (IRB) oversight. The changes to the Common Rule, which was originally adopted in 1991, become effective January 19, 2018. At a Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) webinar, Laura Odwazny, Senior Attorney, HHS Office of the General Counsel, provided the background of, and insight into, the main changes made to the Common Rule.

The Common Rule

The Common Rule, which currently applies to 18 federal departments and agencies, outlines the basic provisions for prior approval of human subjects research by IRBs, informed consent of participants, and institutional assurances of compliance with the regulations. Some agencies have adopted regulatory protections for human subjects in addition to the Common Rule.

Organizations whose researchers receive federal funding to conduct human research must have a Federalwide Assurance (FWA), a written commitment to comply with federal regulations related to human research protections, on file with the OHRP. According to Odwazny, under the current regulations, if a research institution voluntarily extends FWA to all research regardless of the funding source, OHRP can extend its oversight of activities of privately funded research; however the preamble of the Final rule includes a plan to eliminate the voluntary extension of the FWA.

Major changes

Odwazny identified three major rules that were adopted in the Final rule: (1) single-IRB review for multi-institutional research in the U.S.; (2) extended compliance oversight jurisdiction to independent IRBs; and (3) improved informed consent, as well as allowing broad consent for unspecified future research use of already collected information and biospecimens.

The following areas were specifically addressed:

  • consent forms;
  • carve outs;
  • definitions of identifiable private information (IPI) and identifiable biospecimens;
  • concepts of broad consent;
  • limited IRB review; and
  • exemptions for secondary use research of IPI or identifiable biospecimens.

Streamlining IRB oversight

Odwazny explained that under the revised Common Rule, agencies have the authority to enforce compliance directly against IRBs not operated under the Federalwide Assurance. Under this change, compliance actions can be directed against an independent IRB responsible for regulatory noncompliance rather than against the institution working with the independent IRB. In addition, U.S. institutions engaged in cooperative research, which involves more than one institution, must rely on a single IRB approval for the portion of research conducted in the U.S. (the effective date for this provision is January 20, 2020). The single IRB must be identified by the federal department or agency supporting or conducting the research or by the lead institution subject to the acceptance of the federal department or agency supporting the research. The Final rule also provided exceptions to the mandated single IRB review, exceptions for continuing review, and changes to IRB recordkeeping requiring documentation related to these new exceptions.