Washington University Human Research Protection Office (HRPO)

The Human Research Protection Office (HRPO) is the office that works closely with the WU Institutional Review Board (IRB). HRPO provides support for the IRB review process and performs administrative functions as they relate to IRB responsibilities and oversight. HRPO also serves as a resource to the research community including those conducting research and those volunteering as research participants.

Washington University Institutional Review Board

Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) were created, as required by federal law, to review and oversee research involving humans.  The mission of the IRB is to protect the rights and welfare of individuals recruited for, or participating in, human subject research. The Washington University IRB includes members from various backgrounds and expertise such as: physicians, non-physician scientists, researchers, clinicians, nurses, pharmacists, occupational therapists, physical therapists (among other members of the medical community), lawyers, clergy, and lay people from the St. Louis community. Currently the Washington University IRB meets five times per week to review research.

A History of the WU Institutional Review Board

Post-war America saw a significant increase in research involving human subjects, during which Washington University in St. Louis thrived as an academic medical center. Over the course of these decades, agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration began laying the groundwork for research regulations in place today. Many institutions like Washington University in St. Louis remained aware and compliant with these evolving policies. But it was not until a 1972 whistleblower account of the Tuskegee Syphilis study hit the front page of all major newspapers that human research ethics and regulation became a matter of national concern.

In 1969, the “Committee for the Review of Research On Human Beings” began meeting at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. Motivated by the growing national conversation about research ethics, this group of 11 physicians would gather regularly to discuss the ethics of proposed research here at WU. Over time this small committee turned into two committees, and then into three, with an enterprising physician named Dr. John Vavra emerging as their first Executive Chair. A popular lecturer on research ethics both locally and nationally, Dr. Vavra oversaw these WU committees that would become formally known as the Institutional Review Board in the mid-70s.

As the institution continued to expand dramatically as a research center in a wide range of academic disciplines, the Institutional Review Board grew accordingly. By 1987, Dr. Philip Ludbrook assumed Dr. Vavra’s role, now at the helm of a complex process by which up to eleven separate committees would meet monthly on a volunteer basis to review all proposed research involving human participants at the institution. In 2010, Dr. Jonathan Green became the third Executive Chair, overseeing a number of innovative transitions that have made the WU IRB a model for academic institutions of its size. Since 2018, Dr. Amanda Cashen has led the charge of human subject protections at WU as the Executive Chair of the IRB.  Under her leadership, the WU IRB continues to achieve the mission of the IRB and evolve according in the ever-changing field of human subject research. In 2023, Dr. Derek Byers was appointed the Executive Chair, taking the helm of the WU IRB.

An Institutional Review Board of this size requires the voluntary commitment of many physicians, health care professionals, scientists, and representatives from the local community. This voluntary spirit has long been a trademark of the review of human subjects research at Washington University in St. Louis, ever since a few interested physicians in the late 60s met to talk about the dignity and welfare of those willing to participate in the advancement of science. The task remains to this day, what Dr. Vavra described in a 1968 lecture: a concerted effort to maintain scientific “excellence in the context of community.”

Find out more about WU IRB history by visiting the HRPO Open Access Library.

Content current as of 08/04/2023