Blog September 23, 2023
The Legal and Regulatory Requirements of Setting Up a Clinical Trial


Setting up a clinical trial in the United States is a complex endeavor that demands rigorous adherence to various laws, regulations, and guidelines, both federal and state-specific. A clinical trial is essentially a research study involving human volunteers to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of new treatments, drugs, or devices. It is a critical component of medical advancement but poses ethical and safety concerns, necessitating strict regulation. The process requires multiple steps and involves multiple parties, each with different obligations, responsibilities, and interests.


This analysis delves into the intricate legal requirements involved, detailing the protocol approval process, the formation and selection of an Institutional Review Board (IRB), the pathway for submitting a protocol to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for review, and the necessary binding legal agreements between the parties.


Protocol Approval Process


Investigational New Drug Application (IND)

The protocol for a clinical trial cannot proceed without first obtaining an Investigational New Drug (IND) application approval from the FDA. The application must include a comprehensive array of information, including but not limited to:

Preclinical Data: Information from lab and animal studies to demonstrate that the drug is safe for initial testing in humans.

Investigator’s Brochure: Details about the drug’s composition, manufacturing, pharmacological aspects, and previously gathered data.

Study Protocol: Detailed study plan including objectives, design, methodology, statistical considerations, and safety monitoring.

Informed Consent Forms: Documents to ensure that participants are aware of the risks involved.


Phase-by-Phase Evaluation

Phase 1: Primarily focuses on safety.

Phase 2: Emphasizes effectiveness and side effects.

Phase 3: Compares the new treatment with the current standard.

Phase 4: Occurs after FDA approval to monitor long-term effectiveness and safety.




Institutional Review Board (IRB)


Role of the IRB

The IRB has a two-pronged role: to protect human subjects and to assure compliance with all federal regulations. It reviews the research protocol, the informed consent process, and the methods and materials used in participant recruitment.


Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) serve as the cornerstone of ethical oversight in clinical trials and research involving human subjects. Operating under federal guidelines such as the Common Rule, IRBs are mandated to review, approve, and monitor research to ensure that it meets ethical standards and protects the welfare of participants. As the pharmaceutical industry and research organizations increasingly operate within complex legal, ethical, and social landscapes, understanding the formation and function of IRBs becomes critical. This article offers an in-depth exploration of how IRBs are formed and how pharmaceutical companies or research organizations can select or collaborate with an IRB.


Formation of IRBs

Membership Composition

The regulations set forth by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) mandate that an IRB must have at least five members with varying backgrounds, including:

Expertise in the Research Domain: At least one member should possess expertise relevant to the research under review.

Non-Scientists: At least one member whose primary expertise is in a non-scientific area.

Unaffiliated Members: At least one member who is not affiliated with the institution to ensure an unbiased review.

Ethical Framework

IRBs operate within an ethical framework defined by principles such as respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. These principles guide the board’s decision-making processes.

Federal Registration

IRBs must be registered with the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) within the HHS or with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), depending on the type of research.

Standard Operating Procedures

IRBs must also develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) detailing their functions, roles, and responsibilities.

Institutional Support

Often, the host institution—be it an academic establishment, healthcare facility, or research institution—offers administrative and financial support to the IRB.



Selecting or Forming an IRB: A Guide for Pharmaceutical Companies and Research Organizations

Internal vs. External IRBs

Internal IRBs: Some large pharmaceutical companies or research organizations opt to establish their own internal IRBs. This offers the advantage of more control over procedures and timelines but may raise concerns about impartiality.

External IRBs: More commonly, organizations choose to work with external, independent IRBs to mitigate potential conflicts of interest.

Criteria for Selection

Expertise: The IRB should possess the expertise relevant to the specific area of research.

Accreditation: Accreditation from organizations like the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs (AAHRPP) serves as a mark of quality.

Track Record: Prior experience in reviewing similar studies and a history of regulatory compliance should be considered.

Operational Efficiency: Timely reviews and well-defined processes are critical for meeting research timelines.

Due Diligence

Thorough vetting, often involving legal and compliance teams, should be conducted before finalizing an IRB. This may include reviewing the IRB’s SOPs, conflict-of-interest policies, and past performance.

Contractual Agreements

A formal, legally binding agreement usually specifies the roles, responsibilities, and obligations of both parties. These contracts will often outline procedures for protocol submission, review timelines, and financial arrangements.

Continuous Collaboration

The relationship between the IRB and the pharmaceutical company or research organization is not just transactional but ongoing. Regular updates, amendments to the protocol, and monitoring reports are often required.



FDA Submission


Electronic Submission Gateway

The FDA’s Electronic Submissions Gateway is the central transmission point for sending information. Properly prepared IND applications must adhere to the electronic Common Technical Document (eCTD) format.

Regulatory Timelines

After submission, the FDA has 30 days to review the IND application. Failure to hear back within this period usually signifies tacit approval to proceed. However, a clinical hold may be issued if the FDA identifies safety concerns.



Clinical Trials – Legal Agreements


Clinical Trial Agreement (CTA)

Clinical Trial Agreements (CTAs) serve as the foundational contracts governing the conduct of clinical trials between parties such as sponsors (typically pharmaceutical companies), investigators, and institutions (often academic or healthcare providers). Given the ethical, financial, and legal complexities inherent in clinical trials, CTAs are comprehensive documents that require thorough negotiation. This article provides an in-depth examination of the key areas within CTAs that often necessitate nuanced negotiations, aiming to offer a roadmap for stakeholders involved in clinical trials.


Key Components of CTAs

Scope of Work

The work’s scope needs to be clearly defined but should also allow for some flexibility. Any changes in protocol or new sub-studies often necessitate amendments, which can be time-consuming. Negotiating terms that allow minor modifications without requiring extensive renegotiation is beneficial.

Financial Terms

Financial matters are often contentious. Parties should negotiate the specifics around payments, including milestones triggering payouts, the reimbursement process for out-of-pocket expenses, and any overhead costs that the institution may levy. Payment timelines are also crucial, as delays can affect trial momentum.

Data Ownership and Rights

Who owns the collected data, who has access to it, and for what purposes can it be used? These are vital issues to clarify. Researchers may want the ability to use the data for future studies or educational purposes, whereas sponsors may seek exclusivity.

Intellectual Property

The ownership of any new discoveries, inventions, or improvements made during the trial is another complex area. Parties often negotiate the first right of refusal for new patents, or the division of royalties from any commercialized discoveries.


Both parties will have proprietary interests they wish to protect. The terms under which information can be shared, stored, or even used post-trial need negotiation. Confidentiality terms can be particularly challenging when academic researchers are involved, as academic institutions generally prioritize open sharing of information.

Regulatory Compliance

While compliance with federal and international regulations is mandatory, the burden of ensuring compliance can be negotiated. For example, who is responsible for submitting adverse event reports? Such details need to be clarified in the CTA.

Indemnification and Liability

Determining who is liable for various types of risks—including data breaches, adverse events, or legal actions from third parties—is a focal point in CTA negotiations. Each party will aim to limit its liabilities while ensuring that the other party takes responsibility for specific domains of risk.

Publication Rights

Sponsors may want to restrict or delay the publication of research findings, particularly if they have commercial implications. Researchers, on the other hand, have academic incentives to publish quickly. Striking a balance is often tricky but essential.

Termination Clauses

CTAs should specify under what circumstances the agreement can be terminated. Whether due to a lack of efficacy, unacceptable side effects, or other reasons, the terms for winding down a study—financially, ethically, and logistically—are key to negotiate.


Material Transfer Agreement (MTA)

When biological materials or substances are transferred from one institution to another for research purposes, an MTA is necessary. It outlines the scope of use of the material, intellectual property rights, and responsibility for misuse or harm.


Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs) serve as legally binding contracts governing the transfer of tangible research materials between two organizations. In the context of clinical trials, these materials can range from biological samples such as cell lines, tissues, and reagents to proprietary software or even specialized equipment. MTAs outline the terms under which these materials can be used, protecting the intellectual property rights, ensuring regulatory compliance, and setting forth other conditions of use. Given their legal implications and potential impact on the outcome of a clinical trial, understanding and negotiating the terms of MTAs is crucial.


Key Components of MTAs

Definition of Material: A detailed description of the material being transferred is essential to avoid ambiguities that could lead to disputes.

Scope of Use: Specifies the intended purpose and limitations of how the material will be used in the research.

Term and Termination: This outlines the duration for which the agreement is valid and under what conditions it may be terminated.

Confidentiality: Sets forth obligations to maintain the confidentiality of proprietary or sensitive information.

Intellectual Property Rights: Specifies the ownership of inventions, discoveries, or data arising from the use of the material.

Publication: Addresses the right to publish results and conditions under which it may occur.

Indemnification: Defines responsibility for any risks, damages, or legal consequences stemming from the use of the materials.


Key MTA Areas to Negotiate

Ownership and Intellectual Property

One of the most critical elements to negotiate in an MTA is the ownership of any resulting intellectual property (IP). Will the IP be jointly owned by the provider and recipient, or will one party have exclusive rights? What conditions, if any, are placed on filing for patents?

Usage Restrictions

MTAs often specify the scope for which the transferred materials can be used. Restrictions can range from limiting the material’s use to a specific research project to forbidding its use in human subjects. Negotiating flexibility within these restrictions can be advantageous, particularly for multi-stage or evolving projects.

Confidentiality and Data Security

Both parties must agree on the level of confidentiality required for information derived from the material. This may involve the implementation of secure data storage methods, restricted access, and other data security measures.

Publication Rights

The provider may wish to impose restrictions on publishing research findings, especially if they contain proprietary information. Academic institutions, however, typically seek the freedom to publish, making this a potential point of negotiation.

Liability and Indemnification

Understanding who will be held responsible for any damage, contamination, or legal issues that arise from the use of the material is vital. Negotiating the conditions under which a party may be indemnified can protect against unforeseen liabilities.

Material Quality and Replacement

It may be essential to negotiate terms regarding the quality, quantity, and replacement of the transferred materials. What guarantees does the provider offer regarding the material’s quality? What happens if the material is found to be sub-standard or defective?

Return or Destruction of Materials

Some MTAs require the return or destruction of any unused materials at the conclusion of the project. These terms are often negotiable depending on the nature of the material, its cost, and its potential for future use.


Data Use Agreement (DUA)

If the trial involves the use of existing data sets, a DUA is often put into place to specify the conditions for access and use of this data.  In the realm of clinical trials and biomedical research, data is invaluable. From patient health information to experimental results, the utility of this data is manifold but not without challenges around ownership, privacy, and security. This is where Data Use Agreements (DUAs) come into play. DUAs are legally binding contracts that outline the terms under which data can be shared between parties, be it institutions, researchers, or other stakeholders. Given the legal, ethical, and practical implications of DUAs, understanding the intricacies of these agreements is vital for anyone involved in clinical trials.


Key Components of DUAs

Definition of Data: Clearly defines what data will be shared, including the format and the level of detail (e.g., anonymized, aggregated, raw).

Purpose and Scope: Specifies the research goals and objectives that guide how the data will be used.

Duration: Indicates the period during which the data will be available and under what conditions it must be returned or destroyed.

Data Security: Describes the measures that must be taken to protect the data, often aligned with federal regulations like HIPAA.

Data Ownership and Intellectual Property: Addresses the ownership status of the shared data and any derivative works.

Publication Rights: Details whether, when, and how results can be published or otherwise disseminated.

Compliance and Regulatory Requirements: Lists the federal, state, and local regulations with which compliance is necessary.


Key DUA Areas to Negotiate

Data Ownership and Intellectual Property Rights

The question of who owns the data, as well as any new data sets created as a result of the research, is often a significant point of negotiation. Parties need to agree whether the data will be jointly owned or whether one party will retain exclusive rights. Negotiations may also involve future licensing or the ability to commercialize findings.

Purpose and Scope of Use

The DUA must delineate the boundaries of how the shared data can be used. However, research is often an evolving process. Hence, there might be a need for flexibility in the scope of data usage. Any deviation from the original intent may require renegotiation or amendments to the agreement.

Data Quality and Integrity

Data quality can significantly impact the validity of research findings. Both parties often negotiate terms that define the quality, accuracy, and completeness of the data. This may also include provisions for auditing and validating the data.

Data Security and Confidentiality

Given the sensitive nature of clinical data, robust data security provisions are crucial. Parties should negotiate the level of encryption, access controls, and other security measures. Breach protocols, including notification requirements, should also be agreed upon.

Compliance and Regulatory Adherence

Regulatory compliance, particularly with federal laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, also known as the Common Rule, are usually non-negotiable. However, the responsibility for maintaining compliance could be a point of discussion.

Publication and Dissemination Rights

The ability to publish findings or further share the data can be contentious. Academic institutions often seek greater latitude for publication, whereas private entities may seek to restrict this ability to protect commercial or proprietary interests.

Termination Clauses

What happens if the agreement needs to be terminated prematurely? Both parties should negotiate the conditions under which the DUA can be terminated and the obligations for data return or destruction.

Liability and Indemnification

Finally, the DUA should outline who bears responsibility for any legal consequences resulting from data misuse, data loss, or other breaches of the agreement. This is usually one of the most intensely negotiated clauses in the DUA.




The legal landscape surrounding the establishment of a clinical trial in the United States is complex and multifaceted, governed by an array of laws and regulations to ensure both the ethical and scientific integrity of the research. From drafting meticulous protocols and legally binding agreements to navigating through FDA requirements and IRB approvals, every step is fraught with challenges but is essential to uphold the highest standards of medical research.


The high stakes involved in clinical trials make it imperative for all parties to not only understand but adeptly navigate this intricate legal framework, balancing scientific ambition with ethical responsibility and legal compliance. This ensures not just the advancement of medical science but also the well-being and protection of the human subjects who make these advancements possible.