How is the safety of clinical trial participants protected? What is an IRB?

National and international regulations and policies have been developed to help ensure research involving people is conducted according to strict scientific and ethical principles. In these regulations and policies, people who participate in research are usually referred to as "human subjects."

Clinical trials that are conducted or supported by agencies of the U.S. federal government or that evaluate new drugs or medical devices that are subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must be reviewed and approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB reviews all aspects of a clinical trial to make sure that the rights, safety, and well-being of trial participants will be protected. The IRB must also review ongoing trials at least yearly and, based on those reviews, can decide whether the trial should continue as initially planned or if changes should be made to improve participant protection. An IRB can stop a clinical trial if the researchers are not following the protocol or if the trial appears to be causing unexpected harm to the study participants.

An IRB must have at least five members, including one scientist, one person who is not a scientist, and one person who is not affiliated with the institution where the trial is taking place and who is not an immediate family member of someone who is affiliated with that institution. The non-scientist and the non-affiliated member can be the same person. IRBs can also include doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, patient advocates, and other health care or community professionals. All members of an IRB are required to be educated about the IRB's purpose, functions, and responsibilities, as outlined in federal regulations. Trials taking place at multiple locations can involve multiple IRBs.

Next FAQ: What is an IRB? What is a Data and Safety Monitoring Board?