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Research Ethics in the Philippines: a personal journey

 


My recall of the earliest encounter I had with research ethics is when, as a newly appointed faculty member of the department of obstetrics and gynecology of the College of Medicine (CM) of the University of the Philippines (UP) and concurrent attending at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), I rushed to the office of the ethics research committee (known as the Research Implementation and Development Office or RIDO) of CM before the end of office hours one Friday. In my hand was a letter, addressed to the then chairman requesting approval of a study I was about to conduct. Attached to the letter was a one page synopsis of the research protocol. I was fortunate enough to catch him on his way out of the office, and doubly lucky he agreed to quickly browse through the papers I pushed in front of him. He then instructed the office secretary to stamp the letter “APPROVED”, and proceeded to affix his signature. It was in the early 1990’s!

His stamp of approval went a long way towards legitimizing the outcome of my research. I was able to collect and isolate N. gonorrhoea from commercial sex workers in Manila and Cebu, freeze dried all 92, and transport them hand-carried to the laboratory of at the University of Washington. It turned out, almost all the isolates were resistant to the standard first line drug (ciprofloxacin) at that time. Interestingly, a few months before, my collaborator from the US walked into our office looking for someone to work with. Apparently, a US male citizen had been diagnosed to have ciprofloxacin resistant gonorrhea infection. He admitted to having paid sex in Manila and Cebu prior to flying back home. Fate would have it that I was in the office when my collaborator walked in. And since my sub-specialty in obstetrics and gynecology is in infectious disease, the rest was history. I am including this in my narrative because ordinarily, researches with no international collaboration and/or funding would not warrant a mandatory ethics research committee approval. If the process I went through at that time could be construed as a legitimate one today!

Soon after I finished the gonorrhea study, I found myself being appointed by our department chairman to be the representative to the same ethics research committee (RIDO)! By then, in the early years of 1990, all basic science departments of CM and all clinical departments of PGH appointed representatives to RIDO. Meetings were conducted almost monthly to discuss and evaluate research protocols of faculty members who cared to submit their protocols. In those early times, these usually were those with external funding such as clinical trials, or those with international collaborations. I seem to remember the chair of RIDO would present a brief summary of the protocol at hand for the consideration of the members present. If there were no major objections, the research protocol gets approved, and the study will proceed. There didn’t exist written guidelines and standard operating procedures for RIDO. That was in the later years of 1990 and early years of 2000.

When the chair of RIDO retired from the College of Medicine, she recommended me as her replacement. By then, the beginnings of guidelines and standard operating procedures have been put in place. The developments in the interest and commitment to research ethics were being fueled not only within the walls of the academe (CM, PGH and UP), but also in the scientific community. The creation of the National Institutes of Health in UP Manila, whose mandate is to spearhead research at par with the international community, played a big role in upgrading the standards of research, and along with it, compliance to international standards of conducting ethical review of research involving human participants. A Fogarty International grant to UP Manila, whose prime mover was Professor Leonardo D. de Castro, PhD of the College of Social Science and Philosophy of UP Diliman, made it possible to create training programs which empowered the academe in bioethics. In fact in the early years of 2000, a Diploma course in Bioethics was approved and offered through the collaborative efforts of UP Manila and Diliman campuses. Unwittingly, for what I consider to be totally less noble reasons, I took the Diploma course. My main reason was not to help promote research ethics specifically. It was really more for my professional development. At that time, I was already a tenured faculty member. But the trend in the academe was for younger members, even though not yet tenured, to proceed to obtain masteral and even doctoral degrees. My thought at that time was I didn’t want to be upended by younger colleagues. So I enrolled and finished the Diploma course in Bioethics. A year thereafter, the full Masteral course was approved and offered. I proceeded to re-enroll for the same main reason and motivation. It took me several years and 3 extensions of the maximum residency rules of the University before I was able to finish and defend my thesis, and get my Masteral degree in Bioethics!

The prime movers of the bioethics program UP Manila were from the College of Medicine headed jointly by Dra Marita Reyes and Dra Cecilia Tomas. Equal collaborators of the program were Professor Leonardo D. de Castro of the Department of Philosophy, College of Social Science and Philosophy in UP Diliman, among others. The multi-disciplinary collaboration made it possible for many others to establish the Social Medicine Unit (SMU) of the College of Medicine to administer to the MS Bioethics program. It also paved the way for the establishment of a coordinated and integrated system of research ethics review in UP Manila, called the UP Manila Research Ethics Board (UPMREB).

The UPMREB created several panels, each one practically a research ethics committee, with jurisdiction over various sectors of UP Manila: faculty of the College of Medicine (who conduct most of the basic and clinical trials); resident and fellow doctors of Philippine General Hospital; and faculty and students of the various other colleges. Using the same guidelines and standard operating procedures, all the panels of the UPMREB are able to review, approve and monitor all researches in UP Manila. It was also around this time, after my few years as chair of RIDO, that intense preparations were made for the accreditation of RIDO by the Forum for Ethics Research Committees in the Asia Pacific (FERCAP). With the efforts of Dra Evangeline Santos, professor of Ophthalmology and co-graduate of mine from the Diploma in Bioethics program, assisted by other staff of the College of Medicine, FERCAP accreditation was achieved. Subsequently, UPMREB and all its panels achieved the same accreditation.

In the meantime, a law (Republic Act No. 10532), called the Philippine National Health Research System (PNHRS) was enacted in May 2013 to coordinate and integrate all stakeholders in health research in the Philippines. It is through the force of this law that the scientific community outside the University through the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) of the Philippine government, in collaboration with the Department of Education and Culture through the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and the Department of Health, asked the NIH of UP Manila to implement a Memorandum Order which mandates that all research involving human participants shall undergo review by accredited ethics research committees (by December 2015). The DOST, through the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD), designated the Philippine Health Research Ethics Board (PHREB) as the policy-making body with regards to the establishment, registration, accreditation and regulation of research ethics committees in the country. Henceforth, all academic institutions, all hospitals and health care facilities, and all entities doing health and health-related research involving human participants should submit their studies to PHREB-accredited research ethics committees for review, approval and monitoring. The main objectives are to assure that research participants are not harmed (but benefitted), and that research outcomes are credible.

The PHREB, under the chairmanship of Professor Leonardo D. De Castro, created two important committees: 1). Committee on Information Dissemination, Training and Advocacy (CIDTA); and 2). Committee on Standards and Accreditation (CSA). CIDTA was initially chaired by Dra Rosario Tan-Alora, professor of internal medicine, bioethics and former dean of the college of medicine in the University of Santo Tomas. I had the privilege of being a member of her committee, which conducted trainings for nearly all hospitals and academic institutions in the country. Trainings programs were on Basic Research Ethics, on Good Research Practice, and on Standard Operating Procedures. The objective was to enable participants to create and work in research ethics committees of their respective institutions, be they hospitals or academes. Very recently, Dra Alora decided to turn over the chairmanship of CIDTA to me, although she continues to be an invaluable member/mentor. And more recently, CIDTA is preparing to embark on including a Good Clinical Practice module among its training programs.

The other committee (CSA), initially chaired by Dra Cecilia Tomas, has been in charge of setting standards for research ethics committees all over the country, registering them, and assessing them for accreditation. Three levels of accreditation have been established by CSA: Level 1 are research ethics committees capable of reviewing all types of protocols, except clinical trials; Level 2 are research ethics committees capable of reviewing even clinical trials but not those for products intended for registration with the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both committees had been busy the past 2 years. From a few accredited research ethics committees a couple of years ago, there are now 72 all over the country, many of them Level 3! (See http://ethics.healthresearch.ph for a complete listing)

The Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD), recognizing the existence of research projects whose proponents may not be affiliated with institutions with accredited research ethics committees, and in fact providing funds for some such projects, reactivated the National Ethics Committee (NEC). Chaired by Dra Marita Reyes, the NEC is essentially a research ethics committee composed of multi-sectoral recruited volunteers, myself recently included representing the medical field, which reviews research proposals referred to it by the Department of Health and PCHRD. In 2011, the PHREB published the National Ethical Guidelines for Health Research, providing written, country-specific guidelines on the ethical conduct of researches on various fields. (See nec.pchrd.dost.gov.ph). Currently, a technical working group headed by Dra Marita V.T. Reyes, with me as one of the members, is in the final stages of updating the guidelines for 2017!

My personal journey in the world of research ethics continues in my newly-assigned tasks of handling classes in the MS Bioethics graduate program, specifically handling Research Ethics and Research Ethics Review classes. From the one-man, practically ambush approval of my very first international research collaboration, to the current legislated and well-established research ethics system, I have been a privileged witness, albeit by twists of fate more than intent design on my part in many instances, to the evolving developmental history of research ethics in the Philippines. This narration is by no means the complete accurate picture. It is a humble and modest attempt to share a part of my career in the academe as a professional doctor taking care of patients, teaching younger colleagues, doing research on the side, and performing administrative functions.

I am grateful to Dr Gary Allen for the opportunity.

Submitted 16 April 2017.
Revised 24 April 2017 after obtaining permission (and more accurate inputs) from the persons whose names were included in the article.

Contributor
Ricardo Manalastas, Jr., MD, MSc (Bioethics) is a professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Infectious Diseases and Bioethics at the College of Medicine, University of the Philippines, Manila, and Attending obstetrician gynecologist at the Philippine General Hospital.
He can be reached by email at rmmanalastasmd@me.com  | rmmanalastasmd@yahoo.com

This post may be cited as:
Manalastas R. (2017, 24 April) Research Ethics in the Philippines: a personal journey. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/uncategorized/research-ethics-philippines-personal-journey



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