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Human Subjects Research: Undercover Tests Show the Institutional Review Board System Is Vulnerable to Unethical Manipulation

GAO-09-448T Published: Mar 26, 2009. Publicly Released: Mar 26, 2009.
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Millions of Americans enroll in clinical studies of experimental drugs and medical devices each year. Many of these studies are meant to demonstrate that products are safe and effective. The Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are responsible for overseeing aspects of a system of independent institutional review boards (IRB). IRBs review and monitor human subjects research, with the intended purpose of protecting the rights and welfare of the research subjects. GAO investigated three key aspects of the IRB system: (1) the process for establishing an IRB, (2) the process through which researchers wishing to apply for federal funding assure HHS their human subjects research activities follow ethical principles and federal regulations, and (3) the process that medical research companies follow to get approval for conducting research on human subjects. GAO investigated these three aspects of the IRB system by creating two fictitious companies (one IRB and one medical device company), phony company officials, counterfeit documents, and a fictitious medical device.

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