A streamlined application system for research projects in the National Health Service (NHS) has been launched under the umbrella of the UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC).

The online system, which will enable researchers to lodge applications with seven ethical and other review bodies at once, is part of a wider stakeholder programme to harmonise and facilitate the administration of research involving NHS patients. Recent advances have included a Research Passport system for researchers not employed by the health service who want to work across a number of NHS organisations, and a model Clinical Trial Agreement tailored specifically to contract research organisations.

The Integrated Research Application System (IRAS) was developed in response to longstanding criticism from researchers that applying for clearance to conduct studies in the NHS involves “grappling with a bewildering array of forms, many of which require the same details”, noted the UKCRC and the National Research Ethics Service (NRES), the division of the UK’s National Patient Safety Agency that has led the IRAS project.

Building on an existing system established in 2004 to manage research ethics approvals only, IRAS combines the application forms for seven review bodies, so that researchers need only input their study information once. Once this information is entered into IRAS, it will populate the applications relevant to the type of research at issue.

The seven bodies are the Administration of Radioactive Substances Advisory Committee (ARSAC); the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee (GTAC); the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); the Ministry of Justice (National Offender Management Service); the National Health Service/Health and Social Care (HSC) Research Ethics Committees; and the Patient Information Advisory Group (PIAG).

The UKCRC and NRES said lessons learnt from the implementation of the ethics approval system, which currently has 65,000 registered users, had been applied to the development of IRAS. “While some successful integration of the governance and ethical application systems has occurred, IRAS is a major step forward in integrating and simplifying processes for researchers,” they commented.

The UK-wide initiative is supported by the NHS R&D Forum, the major regulatory and governance bodies, the UK Health Departments, the UK Clinical Research Network, research funders and the Forum of NHS Wales for R&D Management in Health and Social Care.

For the moment, the traditional systems for obtaining research approvals will remain in place for those researchers who want to use them, but they will be phased out later in the year. NRES director Dr Janet Wisely noted that wide consultation with users over the next few months would be vital before IRAS became compulsory.

“Researchers will find the IT platform familiar but IRAS is now more than that,” she commented. “It is the combination of data sets and application forms that can be shared and used for a number of different governance approvals. It is envisaged that even more improvements will be made both to content and the operating platform.”

A planned facility to exchange information with EudraCT, the European Union’s clinical trials database, would be “a major benefit for those needing approval from MHRA”, Dr Wisely added. “There is also potential to extend the system further to include additional partners such as funding bodies.”

The IRAS system can be accessed directly at www.myresearchproject.org.uk.