One of the most important responsibilities of a clinical project lead at a biotech company or an academic research team is to generate clinical trial protocols. The protocol dictates how a trial will be conducted and details background information on prior research, scientific objectives, study rationale, research methodology and design, participant eligibility criteria, anticipated risks and benefits, how adverse events will be handled, plans for statistical analysis, and other topics. Many protocol authors use as a starting point a “standardised” protocol template from their funder or institution. These templates often provide standard language, and sections for customisation, sometimes with various “pick-and-choose” options based on the nature of the research. They inevitably cover each of the key topics listed above, but often fail to include ethical principles and considerations beyond the regulatory requirement of informed consent. Indeed, the process of protocol writing has traditionally focused on scientific detail, with ethical analysis often left to institutional review boards (IRBs) and research ethics committees (RECs); unfortunately, robust discussion of specific ethical issues is often absent from clinical trial protocols.
When IRBs and RECs convene to review protocols, they are expected to evaluate whether the study will adequately protect enrolled participants. When the protocol fails to address potential ethical concerns explicitly, reviewers are left to speculate: did the investigator consider the concern, but dismiss it as not relevant in this particular context; did the investigator fail to understand the concern; does the investigator have an appropriate plan in place to resolve the concern, but has left it unstated in the protocol? This uncertainty can contribute to delays as reviewers debate among themselves, and can require lengthy back-and-forth with researchers, including series of protocol revisions and re-reviews until clarity is established. In some cases, it may also be that reviewers with less experience or expertise fail to identify an ethical concern that has not been brought to their attention in a protocol.