Citation: Jeffers MS, MacLellan A, Avey MT, Menon JM, Sunohara-Neilson J, Fergusson DA, et al. (2023) A call to implement preclinical study registration in animal ethics review. PLoS Biol 21(10): e3002293. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3002293
Published: October 5, 2023
Copyright: © 2023 Jeffers et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: The Ontario Graduate Scholarship (MSJ), Canadian Institutes of Health Research sponsored Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGV-186957 to MSJ), The Ottawa Hospital Anesthesia Alternate Funds Association (MML), University of Ottawa Junior Research Chair in Innovative Translational Research (MML), and Canadian Anesthesia Research Foundation sponsored Canadian Anesthesiologists' Society Career Scientist Award (MML) provided funding that supported this work. The funders had no role in design, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: JMLM is Director of Preclinicaltrials.eu, a preclinical study registry. MTA and MML are international ambassadors to promote Preclinicaltrials.eu (not financially compensated).
Interventions that appear effective in preclinical animal studies often demonstrate poor success when tested in human clinical trials, which has led to a “translation crisis” in basic science . This is partially due to selective reporting of the most promising study outcomes , the “file drawer” effect where negative findings never get published, and failures to account for excluded animals during analysis . These biases result in overestimation of treatment effect sizes in the preclinical literature . Preclinical study registration, the prospective posting of study protocols on publicly accessible registries, offers a way to mitigate these biases. Yet to date, this practice has seen little uptake .
In contrast, over the last 2 decades, a series of policy changes and legal requirements from regulatory bodies sharply increased registration of human clinical trials . The US Food and Drug Administration set legal mandates for creation of clinicaltrials.gov and trial registration; the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors made registration a prerequisite for publication; and the US National Institutes of Health began requiring registration of all trials receiving funding. This promoted global adoption of clinical trial registration and mandatory proof of registration for ethical approval of clinical trials. Together, this provides evidence that external organizations can influence registration decisions and promote uptake.
For animal researchers, similar resources exist, with 2 registries specifically for protocol submission (Preclinicaltrials.eu, Animal Study Registry) and other general platforms available for documenting study materials (e.g., Open Science Framework). These publicly accessible databases aim to provide an overview of all animal studies (including those that are ongoing and work that may remain unpublished) to increase transparency and reduce unnecessary duplication of experiments. Unfortunately, usage to date has been low, with only a few hundred entries across each registry . As a potential solution, we propose integrating preclinical registration within the animal use protocol (AUP) review process. This could mirror the successful implementation observed with clinical trials and ultimately increase uptake.
Drawing on previous analyses of reporting in animal experiments , views on animal study registries , and discussions among the investigative team (comprising preclinical and clinical researchers, veterinarians, members of international preclinical registries, national animal ethics governing bodies, and institutional animal ethics boards), we identified major facilitators and barriers to integrating study registration with AUP review . In Canada and other jurisdictions (e.g., United States, European Union, United Kingdom), oversight bodies such as the Canadian Council on Animal Care empower animal ethics committees to ensure animal users complete AUP forms that detail and justify proposed research. These committees are aware and supportive of the principles and benefits of registration practices, offering a major driver for implementing preclinical study registration at the level of AUP review. Moreover, animal ethics committees also have the infrastructure and regulatory power to institute local requirements for preclinical study registration, and animal users already report much of the information required by registries in their AUPs. Therefore, harmonization of the AUP and animal registry requirements could minimize administrative burden on researchers and facilitate use of animal study registries.
However, a major barrier to implementing preclinical study registration into AUP review is a perceived lack of research community support . Concerns that registration has potential to cause harm to researchers by increasing regulatory burden and risking intellectual property loss (i.e., having experimental plans “scooped”), as well as limited time and resources available to adapt review processes, contributes to hesitancy. These perceptions must be addressed to support the collaborative relationship between scientists and animal ethics committees while promoting implementation of study registration.
Ensuring successful implementation of this approach will require an in-depth assessment of current practices at a variety of institutions. Doing so is essential for gauging compatibility with preclinical registration requirements and identifying areas of opportunity and institutional readiness for integration of preclinical registration and animal ethics review (Table 1). For example, hypothesis-testing research would be an ideal target for initial implementation. In the biomedical sphere, these translationally oriented “confirmatory” studies often feature the predefined hypotheses, statistical analysis plans, and design elements (e.g., randomization/blinding) that most closely resemble human clinical trials where registration is already widely practiced [11,12]. However, preclinical study registration may also be readily adopted in other areas (e.g., exploratory or basic research), since existing registries include a flexible registration process that facilitate descriptions of diverse protocols (e.g., researchers conducting exploratory work or pilot studies can justify the absence of a priori sample size calculations; basic researchers can include details of experimental designs). Still, to build research community approval for study registration, working groups of preclinical researchers and other institutional stakeholders (e.g., committee members, veterinarians) should be established to liaise with organizations that have successfully adopted study registration into their AUP review processes. This will allow institutions to learn from past successes/challenges, build support, and reach consensus on how study registration practices can be successfully implemented at a local level (Table 1).
Furthermore, assisting animal ethics committees with adaptations to AUPs will promote implementation and minimize researcher burden through harmonization of ethics review and study registration forms. Practical social support should be provided in the form of technical assistance by animal study registries for interactive problem-solving and support with implementation challenges (Table 1). Dissemination of educational materials created by animal study registries, as well as educational workshops for researchers affected by registration requirements, will be helpful to prepare the community and mitigate concerns about changes to the ethics process. Having local champions of preclinical registration provide training on behalf of the animal ethics committee could facilitate adoption, strengthen relationships between researchers and animal ethics committees, and alleviate barriers caused by limited resources and the novelty of preclinical study registration.
Throughout the implementation process, all affected groups (researchers, ethics committees, etc.) should be engaged and consulted to ensure that changes to the ethics review and registration processes are perceived as feasible, acceptable, and working as intended. Thus, the efficacy of this approach could be evaluated through working groups, surveys, and semi-structured interviews to collect data that would help guide improvement of future implementation initiatives. Additionally, the systems impact of implementing these practices should be monitored through before-after assessments of registration numbers at each preclinical study registry, as well as the ratio of approved AUPs (and thus registered protocols) to published experiments as a measure of publication bias.
Overall, integration of preclinical study registration into ethics review facilitates uptake of this practice, making it a routine element of animal research and potentially enabling seamless transmission of approved AUPs from the ethics committee to the study registry. Developing partnerships between local researchers, animal ethics committees, and animal study registries will promote feasibility and sustainability of this practice. Critically, this approach will help researchers and animal ethics committees alike by minimizing the administrative burden of having separate AUP and registration processes, promoting detailed reporting, providing transparency in whether published research was carried out as initially approved, and reducing redundancy in animal studies.
We suggest a pragmatic approach to implementation of study registration into institutional animal ethics review through assessment of the current landscape, building community support, and connecting research, ethics, and registry stakeholders. Implementing preclinical study registration is a critical step in improving the transparency of preclinical research intended to inform clinical trials. As a research community, we must undertake these steps in order to reduce failed translation due to the negative impacts of selective outcome reporting, publication bias, and overestimation of preclinical treatment efficacy [2–4].
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