In appreciation: Felix Gyi will be remembered for his passion, leadership and desire to educate, pay it forward
Given the choice between talking about Chesapeake Research Review, the highly successful IRB he founded in 1993, or conveying useful information and insights involving bioethics and human subject protection, Felix A. Khin-Maung- Gyi would always choose the latter.
That’s how colleagues, competitors and friends remember him—a consummate professional who preferred to discuss the ethics of clinical trial patient recruitment and the importance of the informed consent process over his own accomplishments. Gyi died suddenly Oct. 2 in his Ellicott City, Md., home of undetermined causes. He was 58 years old.
Best known for his dedication to pursuing adequate and appropriate protections, along with the expansion of effective and ethical research into underrepresented communities, he succeeded in obtaining input from a broad variety of stakeholders—including academic and professional organizations, IRB members and clinical investigators who routinely struggle with bioethical issues.
“He made sure all of us knew the importance of doing the right thing when nobody is watching,” said Christine Pierre, founder and CEO of RxTrials and the founder and president of the Society for Clinical Research Sites. “He was very gracious with his time and knowledge to everyone. Whether you were a stranger or you knew him, he would talk to you, willing to help either by himself or through his many contacts.”
“Felix was a connector, a gatherer of people, whether in industry, at church or in the restaurants he frequented,” added Pierre. “Sometimes when you talked to him, he would listen and then reach into his coat pocket and take out index cards and with a fine ballpoint pen jot down what you said or write a follow-up to-do list.”
In building Chesapeake into a premier IRB, Gyi also was seen as scholar in the field of research ethics and protection. Because of his writings, he was a popular speaker at clinical research conferences and a leader who interacted easily with people he met at various industry committee meetings.
Gyi often shared his conviction that involving minority groups in clinical research demands the industry acknowledge what has gone wrong in both clinical research and medicine in the past.
“Whenever I was with him for a period of time, he made me a better person just being with him,” said Ernest Prentice, Ph.D., now associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who first met Felix more than 20 years ago at conferences and later gave continuing education lectures to the Chesapeake staff.
Their friendship continued after Prentice was appointed to the board of directors of Schulman Associates IRB nearly five years ago.
“My interactions with Felix did not involve any business discussions, but they did include issues pertaining to the field of research ethics and how we all were evolving as a community of IRBs,” said Prentice.
He and others cited Gyi’s work in navigating regulatory change and federal agency rules, as a past member of the U.S. Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections. Known as SACHRP, its role is to review the interpretations and impact of regulations on the burdens and efficiencies of human research protections.
“At SACHRP, he worked with various governmental agencies on the accreditation issues and protections and advised on research ethics and good clinical practice education programs overseas,” said Linda Strause, Ph.D., principal and founder of Strategic Clinical Consultants, who has known Gyi for nearly 25 years. “He’s an amazingly honorable human being.”
As a former pharmacist, Gyi never forgot the profession and the work pharmacists did. “He helped pharmacists with substance abuse problems through an organization [The Pharmacist’s Education & Advocacy Council of Maryland] as a key way for him to help individuals who are challenged, and worked with that group for many years,” recalled Marjorie A. Speers, Ph.D., owner of Speers Research Strategies.
“I always saw him as a humble individual,” she added. “He never boasted about the things he did.”
Gyi, who was born in Rangoon, Burma (now known as Myanmar), came to the U.S. as a teenager with his sister and parents—his father left a Burmese government job as a civil engineer. His mother was an educator. They initially lived in Burlingame, Calif., before moving to Bethesda, where his father took a job with the World Bank in Washington.
Gyi earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Maryland in 1983. Three years later he earned a doctorate in pharmacy from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and completed pharmacy residences at hospitals in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. He also earned an Executive MBA from Loyola University. He then worked for Clinical Pharmacy Associates, a pharmaco-surveillance and investigational supplies company, and Fidia Pharmaceutical.
According to Jeffrey Wendel, Chesapeake president, Gyi’s career reached a turning point while he was an adjunct assistant professor in healthcare services at George Washington University Medical Center, when he ran the school’s IRB.
“His exposure to working with a small pharmaceutical company, a pharmacy supplies firm and clinical pharmacists in a hospital setting provided the background in operations he needed for George Washington’s IRB,” said Wendel. “So he had the best of both academic and private sector experience before starting Chesapeake in 1993. Those capabilities are why a lot of people look to him for leadership, as he can bring out the best in people through consensus and teamwork.”
Gyi also was magnanimous in praising former employees, viewing their job changes as positive career growth after being mentored and trained at Chesapeake.
“What struck me was how he stayed in touch with some of them—he once called me and asked if I could keep an eye on a former Chesapeake employee who was working at a hospital where I was a consultant,” said Stuart Horowitz, Ph.D., president, institutions and institutional services at WIRB-Copernicus Group. “I kept him informed. For me, it was a real privilege to have Felix as a competitor. You always knew his opinions were aligned with the best interests of human resource protection.”
“When he spoke,” said Horowitz, “you knew it came from the heart, and he listened to people’s words as a deep thinker.”