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Behind the research: Get to know the Sunnybrook research ethics board (REB)

Colleagues' hands, writing and working during a meeting.

Every year, approximately 450 new studies and over 1,800 existing research studies are reviewed by a group of 25+ volunteers that make up the Sunnybrook research ethics board (REB). Each of these committed individuals spend approximately 12 hours a month reviewing and providing detailed feedback on studies to ensure research involving humans meets today’s ethical and scientific standards. The committee is made up of staff, scientists and physicians at Sunnybrook, as well as community members including those with expertise in privacy, law and ethics. Without them, research at Sunnybrook and beyond would not be possible.

Below, a few members of the REB provide an inside look at the work done by the committee and share why they choose to provide their time to further research.

What are the responsibilities of the REB?

Dr. Jordan Tarshis (anaesthesiologist and REB scientific member, Sunnybrook)

The two primary goals of the REB are to protect human participants in research trials and facilitate and promote clinical research at Sunnybrook. The REB is always looking to optimize the safety of participants in research, which includes medical care as well as privacy and security. Once the REB receives a proposed project from the study team, we review it and often suggest modifications to the proposal to improve the safety and privacy of participants, while maintaining the integrity of the research proposal.

Our role as an REB was recently summed up nicely by the REB chair, Dr. Brian Murray, who said we are here not to protect the participants from research but to protect them for research.

Who serves on the REB?

Tiffany Tassopoulos (manager, research ethics, Sunnybrook)

The members of the REB are unpaid volunteers — health-care professionals, researchers, lawyers and community members — who genuinely want to give back to patients and support research by providing their time and expertise. The team is led by our incredible chair and vice-chair, Dr. Brian Murray and Lisa Di Prospero, Keitha McMurray (executive director, research integrity & clinical research services), myself and the dedicated staff in the research ethics office (Catherine Parry and Monica Hung).

I often say the REB is one of the hardest working committees at Sunnybrook. The collective effort of this committee is humbling. These individuals receive little to no recognition and are often unknown to the researchers, staff and patients that take part in research, and yet play such a critical role in the clinical research process.

What are some of the benefits of volunteering with the Sunnybrook REB?

Dale Philp (REB legal, privacy and community member)

Volunteering with the REB provides an opportunity to give back and to learn about new and exciting research. Personally, I was looking for an opportunity that would allow me to give back to the community and, after retiring from 28 years of practicing law, I wanted to continue using my skills into retirement. I’ve been part of the REB for three years (a typical term) and I’ve found the experience humbling. It’s an incredibly diverse, dedicated and bright group of people that sit around the REB table. I feel very fortunate to be amongst them and to have the opportunity to review cutting-edge research from some of the brightest minds pushing the boundaries of what is possible in medicine.

Dr. Sharon Yamashita (professional practice leader, pharmacy and REB scientific member, Sunnybrook)

Volunteering with the REB provides a unique opportunity to discuss and advance science. Like others on the committee, I enjoy learning about novel therapies and research questions, and being part of a collegial group of individuals who come together to discuss protocols, each with their own unique perspective and expertise. Our mission — to facilitate scientific advancement but at the same time, ensure the safety of our research volunteers — is incredibly important.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the practices and processes of the REB?

Chris Cawston (REB community member)

COVID-19 presented us with some huge challenges, so beginning in March 2020, the REB chairs and research office led us through a dramatic transition, which included a switch to virtual board meetings. The volunteer members of the REB went above and beyond to review a massive number of new protocols related to COVID-19, including the formation of an emergency review team and processes that ensured we could rapidly facilitate important projects.

One of many examples included reviewing CATCO, a multi-centre trial in conjunction with the World Health Organization, that is investigating the safety and efficacy of different medications for COVID-19. Emergency meetings were held with little notice and board members had to work quickly to complete these reviews while always ensuring our usual high standards were maintained. In addition to the many protocols introduced to address issues raised by COVID-19, the team also managed to ensure the continued operation of approximately 2,000 active protocols — many requiring amendments to deal with logistical issues introduced by the pandemic.

My role with the REB makes me feel like, in my own small way, I helped contribute to our efforts to combat COVID-19 and cope with its effects.

The scientist’s perspective: What’s it like to work with the Sunnybrook REB?

Dr. Rob Fowler (senior scientist and critical care physician, Sunnybrook)

The REB at Sunnybrook is an active participant in research — helping to improve study protocols, making the research more accessible to patients and always being available for advice throughout the entire process.

They have reviewed over two dozen studies and trials that I’ve had the pleasure to help lead over the past 20 years. Over that entire period, the Sunnybrook REB has been just wonderful — they have deep expertise, are incredibly efficient and are always practical. When it matters most for patients and research teams, the Sunnybrook REB is there.

Interested in serving on the Sunnybrook research ethics board? Learn more.

About the author

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Samantha Sexton

Samantha is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook Research Institute.

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