Ethics review in compassionate use

BMC Medicine
(Accessed 29 July 2017)

Ethics review in compassionate use
Jan Borysowski, Hans-Jörg Ehni and Andrzej Górski
BMC Medicine 2017 15:136
Published on: 24 July 2017
Compassionate use is the use of unapproved drugs outside of clinical trials. So far, compassionate use regulations have been introduced in the US, Canada, many European countries, Australia and Brazil, and treatment on a compassionate use basis may be performed in Japan and China. However, there are important differences between relevant regulations in individual countries, particularly that approval by a research ethics committee (institutional review board) is a requirement for compassionate use in some countries (e.g. the US, Spain, and Italy), but not in others (e.g. Canada, the UK, France, and Germany).
The main objective of this article is to present aspects of compassionate use that are important for the discussion of the role of research ethics committees in the review of compassionate use. These aspects include the nature of compassionate use, potential risks to patients associated with the use of drugs with unproven safety and efficacy, informed consent, physicians’ qualifications, and patient selection criteria. Our analysis indicates that the arguments for mandatory review substantially outweigh the arguments to the contrary.
Approval by a research ethics committee should be obligatory for compassionate use. The principal argument against mandatory ethical review of compassionate use is that it is primarily a kind of treatment rather than biomedical research. Nonetheless, compassionate use is different from standard clinical care and should be subject to review by research ethics committees. First, in practice, compassionate use often involves significant research aspects. Second, it is based on unapproved drugs with unproven safety and efficacy. Obtaining informed consent from patients seeking access to unapproved drugs on a compassionate use basis may also be difficult. Other important problems include the qualifications of the physician who is to perform treatment, and patient selection criteria.