Public Release: 

New IOM report assesses oversight of clinical gene transfer protocols

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

WASHINGTON -- In most cases, human gene transfer research is no longer novel or controversial enough to require additional review from the National Institutes of Health's Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, known as RAC, says a new report by the Institute of Medicine. Patient safety is always paramount, the report says, but most individual RAC reviews no longer provide benefits beyond the existing regulatory and oversight framework and may be impeding scientific advancement with unnecessary administrative burdens.

However, NIH should consider developing a process - using RAC as a model - to rigorously review research on humans in any scientific realm that uses applications from emerging technologies or techniques that pose unknown or significant risks.

"The government's role in research must be, first and foremost, to safeguard the rights, dignity, and health of human subjects, while also facilitating vital scientific research to prevent and treat major health threats," said Lawrence O. Gostin, university professor at Georgetown University Law Center and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "The RAC has instilled public confidence in an area of research that was once deeply controversial, and the RAC model could serve as a method for transparent engagement and review of any novel scientific research that poses unknown or heightened risk."

Human gene transfer research involves the introduction of genetic material into a human subject for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes. Individual gene transfer research protocols - extensive written research plans -- currently must be reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as by multiple oversight bodies at individual research institutions. Each protocol for NIH-funded research is also reviewed by RAC, which then selects a small number of potentially controversial or novel research protocols for further oversight and public review. The RAC no longer directly regulates human gene transfer research but instead advises NIH on protocols and provides a public forum for discussing scientific, technical, and ethical considerations.

Since RAC was formed in the 1970s, decades of extensive clinical and research experience have helped alleviate many of the initial concerns about human gene transfer research. Hundreds of clinical trials - predominantly Phase I clinical trials designed to evaluate safety - have been completed and much has been learned about how to ensure the safety of research participants. In addition, the promise of more effective treatments for devastating and debilitating diseases has increased the public's positive perceptions of this research.

RAC should only review individual research protocols in exceptional cases, the committee concluded. The report identifies specific criteria that a research protocol should meet before it is determined to require RAC review, such as when a new vector, genetic material, or delivery method is first used on human subjects, and when protocols cannot be adequately reviewed by other oversight and regulatory bodies. The NIH director should consult with other regulatory and oversight authorities to determine whether RAC review is warranted. But even if proposed research doesn't meet these criteria, the director should have the flexibility to select research protocols for RAC review that may present significant societal or ethical concerns.

In addition to gene transfer, other emerging technologies to be used in human research, such as nanotechnology, could benefit from public discussion and oversight, the report says. The NIH director should convene an ad hoc working group to consider whether providing oversight and a venue for public deliberation similar to RAC for research on humans involving other emerging applications is needed. The report notes that such oversight and review should focus only on cases that have generated significant public concern or that fall outside existing regulatory capacities.

The study was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Established in 1970 under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine provides independent, objective, evidence-based advice to policymakers, health professionals, the private sector, and the public. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. A committee roster follows.



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Additional resources:

Full Report

Report in Brief

Copies of Oversight and Review of Clinical Gene Transfer Protocols: Assessing the Role of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Board on Health Sciences Policy

Committee on the Independent Review and Assessment of the Activities of the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee

Lawrence O. Gostin, J.D. (chair)
University Professor and the Linda and Timothy O'Neill Professor of Global Health Law
Georgetown University;
Professor of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University; and
O'Neill Institute on National and Global Law, and
WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights
Georgetown University Law Center
Washington, D.C.

Kenneth I. Berns, Ph.D., M.D.
Distinguished Professor
Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
University of Florida College of Medicine

R. Alta Charo, J.D.
Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics
School of Law, and
Department of Medical History and Bioethics
School of Medicine and Public Health
University of Wisconsin

Howard J. Federoff, M.D., Ph.D.
Executive Vice President for Health Sciences
Department of Neurology, and
Executive Dean
Georgetown University School of Medicine
Washington, D.C.

Jeffrey P. Kahn, M.P.H., Ph.D.
Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy
Berman Institute of Bioethics
Johns Hopkins University

Terry Magnuson, Ph.D.
Vice Dean for Research, and
Sarah Graham Kenan Professor and Chair
Department of Genetics
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill

Joseph G. Perpich, M.D.
Principal and Senior Medical Adviser
JBS International Inc.
Bethesda, Md.

Sharon F. Terry
President and CEO
Genetic Alliance
Washington, D.C.

Inder M. Verma, M.Sc., Ph.D.
Laboratory of Genetics, and
American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Biology and
Irwin and Joan Jacobs Chair in Exemplary Life Science
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
La Jolla, Calif.

John E. Wagner, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics
University of Minnesota Medical School

Daniel J. Wattendorf, M.D.
Deputy Chief
Medical Innovations, and
Program Manager
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
U.S. Department of the Air Force
Arlington, Va.


Rebecca N. Koehler, Ph.D.
Study Director

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