The Ethics of HIV “Cure” Research: What Can We Learn from Consent Forms?

Author: Gail Henderson

The development of HIV “cure” research has generated enormous attention, but also concern about its potential to engender false hope, leading to overestimation of benefits and underestimation of risks, and about recruiting relatively healthy participants to studies with uncertain or serious risks. Currently, little is known about potential ethical problems in the ways that informed consent for HIV cure research is described to potential participants. As a first step to address this question, early phase, HIV “cure” research consent forms were analyzed to assess how study aims and potential risks and benefits are presented. Thirteen consent forms from a diverse group of clinical studies were selected to represent the major categories of cure research, including 11 interventional (gene transfer, vaccine intensification, treatment interruption, and latency reversing) and two observational. Consent forms were coded using seven categories, abstracting data on study purpose and design, participant selection criteria, presentation of risks and benefits of participation, and potential return of research results.

Findings demonstrate variation and deficiencies that merit attention, but that can largely be addressed by turning to existing guidance about early phase research and specific study designs from other research contexts. The most challenging of these is ensuring that clear, specific, and consistent language is used to describe study aims, risks, benefits, and possible return of results. Informed consent for HIV “cure” research represents an opportunity to apply relevant existing guidance, measure the effectiveness of its application, and develop standardized best-practice policies for consent forms and processes.

 

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