From September 16, 2019, all research conducted in India which focuses on human diseases or conditions in the context of a drug, medical device or cosmetics will have to be reviewed and overseen by a non-governmental body known as Ethics Committee.

More specifically, from that date, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 (DCA) will begin to apply to “biomedical and health research”, which is defined as “research including studies on basic, applied and operational research or clinical research, designed primarily to increase scientific knowledge about diseases and conditions (physical or socio-behavioral); their detection and cause; and evolving strategies for health promotion, prevention, or amelioration of disease and rehabilitation”. The New Drugs and Clinical Trials Rules, 2019 (NDCTR), notified under the DCA, will make it mandatory for any person, company or institution involved in biomedical and health research regulated by NDCTR to ensure that a registered Ethics Committee reviews and oversees the conduct of the research.

Background

Prior to notification of NDCTR on March 19, 2019, there was no law as such that regulated biomedical and health research carried out on human participants other than such clinical research which involved a ‘new drug’. The Indian Council of Medical Research, India’s apex medical research and scientific body, had published The National Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical and Health Research on Human Subjects but there was no law that could enforce these guidelines on sponsors, professionals and institutions involved in the research. This lacuna in the law has been addressed by NDCTR. The provisions in NDCTR that relate to biomedical and health research were to take effect after 180 days from March 19, 2019 (i.e. the date of its notification). This time was sought, perhaps, to put the administrative machinery in place, such as the National Ethics Committee Registry for Biomedical and Health Research.

Who will be impacted

Any legal person, whether an individual or company, undertaking any biomedical or health research regulated by NDCTR for academic or business purposes, will have to approach a registered Ethics Committee for approval of the research proposal.

A laundry list of those who may be impacted the most is described below for convenience –

Pharma Companies – Pharma companies usually undertake non-interventional research to evaluate patient behaviour, adoption and outcomes. Pharma companies also undertake non-mandatory post-marketing surveillance of pharmaceutical drugs. To the extent that such research concerns the health of the patient, it would have to be approved and overseen by a registered Ethics Committee.

Medical Device Companies – Like pharma companies, medical device companies undertake non-interventional research to evaluate patient behaviour, adoption and outcomes. Medical device companies also commission research to analyse secondary health data in patient registries. Such research would have to be approved and overseen by a registered ethics committee.

Cosmetics Companies – Cosmetics companies commission health-related studies from time to time. For example, cosmetic companies pay market research companies to assess the impact of the product from a psychological perspective (e.g. increase in confidence, reduction in stigma related to pimples or scars etc.). Such studies would henceforth be required to be approved and overseen by a registered Ethics Committee.

Diagnostic Companies – Diagnostic companies, especially those operating in the field of precision diagnostics, commission studies on existence and determination of various biological markers that aid in the diagnosis of diseases and conditions prevalent in the Indian market. Such studies would henceforth be required to be overseen by a registered Ethics Committee.

Technology Companies – Some technology companies, such as IBM, offer products and services that help clinicians in making better decisions with respect to the choice of medicines by analyzing a database of patient records (e.g. IBM Watson). Such technology companies, before deploying their products and services that analyze patient data with reference to pharmaceutical drugs, notified medical devices or cosmetics, would require the approval of a registered Ethics Committee.

Contract Research Organizations – There are numerous contract research organizations that undertake comparative Bio-availability and Bio-equivalence studies in India for pharmaceutical drugs that have been in the market for some time (i.e. drugs other than new drugs). Such comparative studies would henceforth be required to be approved and overseen by a registered Ethics Committee.

Market Research Organizations – Many market research organizations collect health data or undertake health-related primary research (e.g. patient interviews) and secondary research (e.g. prescription analysis) to reach certain conclusions for its clients (e.g. distinctive health-related product claims). Such marketing research organization would also have to submit their research to a registered Ethics Committee for review and approval.

Who will not be impacted

Companies undertaking health research on traditional medicinal products (Ayurvedic, homoeopathic medicines etc.) – The NDCTR have been framed under powers that the Central Government has with respect to pharmaceutical drugs, notified medical devices and cosmetics. Therefore, logically, it does not apply to all other categories of drugs such as ayurvedic medicines and homoeopathic medicines. Since the obligations with respect to biomedical and health research are provided under the NDCTR, these logically cannot apply such other category of drugs due to the inherent limitations of NDCTR.

Companies undertaking health research on non-notified medical devices – The DCA applies to a very small number of notified medical devices at present. Any bio-medical and health research that concerns non-notified medical devices should not be covered by NDCTR.

Food & Beverage companies – The DCA does not apply to food or beverages. A separate legislation, called Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (FSSA), regulates the quality of food and beverages sold in India. There is no requirement to obtain an Ethics Committee permission to undertake biomedical and health research related to food products under FSSA.

Educational institutions – Students, academicians and professionals in numerous educational institutions undertake epidemiological research i.e. biomedical and health research that is related to diseases and conditions in general and not related to any particular medicine, notified medical device or cosmetics. Such research should not fall in the scope of NDCTR.

Challenges

Shortage of registered ethics committees – Almost all major research institutions in India have a registered ethics committee that they have formed themselves. Some research institutions who don’t have a registered ‘institutional’ ethics committee of their own seek services of a registered ‘independent’ ethics committee. These ethics committees are registered to review clinical trials on new drugs and investigational notified medical devices. The challenge, however, is that a separate registration is required for ethics committees which will review biomedical and health research proposals. In fact, the authority which will grant such registration to ethics committees was designated only a few days ago by the government (i.e. on September 12, 2019). Therefore, at the time of commissioning biomedical and health research, the sponsor of such must carefully evaluate the ‘registered’ status of the ethics committee who has offered its services.

Lack of clarity in definition – The definition of “biomedical and health research” is very broad, so much that it could arguably extend to research on how a medicine “tastes” or a medical device “feels”. Further, the definition by itself does not restrict the application of NDCTR to research that involves medicines, notified medical device and cosmetics only. It is broad enough to cover “basic research” as well, which is not connected any medicine, medical device or cosmetic but instead concerns research on human body and its constituents. Such expansive interpretation of the scope of the definition is not correct, because the parent law to NDCTR, that is the DCA, is applicable only to drugs, notified medical devices and cosmetics. Therefore, rules made under it, cannot go beyond the scope of DCA.

Conclusion

In light of the application of NDCTR to biomedical and health research, sponsors of any research that concerns human participants and involves a pharmaceutical drug, notified medical device or cosmetic must be careful to not inadvertently violate NDCTR. A good practice would be to refer all such studies for approval of a duly registered Ethics Committee who may, after review of the study design, itself come to a conclusion that it is within the scope of NDCTR or not. Needless to say, all eligible biomedical and health research should under undertaken after review, and under supervision, of a duly registered Ethics Committee only.