Amid Investigations, CPRIT's Future Uncertain

In 2008, when the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas embarked on its mission to cure cancer, the $3 billion program was welcomed with fanfare by voters who had passed a constitutional amendment to establish it.

Four years later, CPRIT’s future is far from certain, as the quasi-governmental agency and its fast-shrinking cast of advisers face accusations of impropriety and criminal and civil investigations.

The Texas attorney general, Travis County district attorney and state auditor’s office are all embroiled in investigations into whether CPRIT officials broke the law in their distribution of grant funds to cancer research and commercialization projects. On Thursday, the influential House Appropriations Committee will meet to discuss whether to continue funding CPRIT, which receives $300 million annually.

CPRIT has been under a critical lens since March, when the resignation of its chief scientific officer, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Alfred Gilman, and his public comments criticizing CPRIT’s grant-making process prompted an exodus of the program’s top scientists. Media reports sparked by the scientists’ departure uncovered ties between grant recipients and state politicians, and evidence that some CPRIT officials may have hastily approved a CPRIT commercialization grant.

The controversy gained momentum in political circles in November, when CPRIT’s oversight committee disclosed it had awarded an $11 million grant to Peloton Therapeutics without proper scientific review. The Travis County district attorney’s office and the attorney general announced they were opening criminal and civil investigations, respectively. On Tuesday, Bill Gimson, the agency’s executive director, submitted his resignation. 

“Our concerns are obvious: The public evidence is that money is being handed out based upon political connections and not on business or scientific merit,” the directors of Progress Texas, a liberal political organization, wrote in a letter to the Travis County district attorney’s office. “There are, at a minimum, numerous ethical questions involved, and quite possibly legal issues not confronted in the legislation that created these funds.”

Members of CPRIT’s oversight committee, which gives final approval of CPRIT grants, said the organization’s problems are far less dramatic than the media has alleged. They say the public is simply witnessing the “growing pains” of a new agency that was ill-prepared to handle the magnitude of the task it was given.

CPRIT has “done a lot of things right, but it’s screwed up a couple of grants,” said Tom Luce, a Dallas lawyer appointed to the oversight committee by House Speaker Joe Straus. He supports the investigations and intervention by lawmakers to improve CPRIT’s processes, but believes they will not turn up “any evidence of malicious intent.”

CPRIT insiders suggest the organization has been crippled by disagreement between researchers, politicians and business leaders on how the funding should be distributed. They say the exodus of CPRIT scientists is directly connected to the oversight committee’s pursuit of additional commercialization projects — efforts to get therapies to market — over pure scientific research.

“There’s no question in the minds of the … oversight committee that development/commercialization activities are allowed under the legislation,” said Charles Tate, a Houston venture capitalist and member of the oversight committee. “The only people who disagree on that are all the people who want all the money spent on research.”

In October, after Gilman’s resignation, Gov. Rick Perry, Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sent a letter to CPRIT officials urging them to pursue more commercialization projects. “CPRIT laid a solid foundation for this endeavor by focusing its efforts and funding predominantly on basic scientific research,” they wrote. “It is now time for CPRIT to take further steps to fulfill its statutory mission and expedite innovation that will deliver new cancer treatments to patients within three to five years." 

It usually takes a decade or more to turn biomedical research into a drug that is commercially available for consumers. In the last three years, CPRIT has awarded a total of $802 million in grants — 66 percent to research projects, 7 percent to commercialization projects and 27 percent to prevention and data collection projects.

Despite allegations by liberal groups that CPRIT has become a “slush fund” for Perry — who, along with Straus and Dewhurst, appoints members of the oversight committee — the governor has stood firm in his support of the agency. But he said it needs to “be transparent, it needs to have the confidence of the people of this state” — and that he supports personnel changes, legislative intervention and an investigation by the attorney general to rebuild public trust.

“I support it all, because finding the cure for cancer is one of the most important projects that we will work on as a state in this decade,” he said.

CPRIT, meanwhile, is trying to pull the pieces together under the shadow of multiple investigations. Dr. Margaret Kripke, the former executive vice president and chief academic officer at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, has been hired to replace Gilman as the chief scientific officer. And the oversight board has approved policies to strengthen the grant process, including putting a director of compliance in charge of certifying that grant proposals have undergone all the proper review processes before they are given approval. The agency has not yet replaced Gimson.

Tate said that in the upcoming session, he expects the Legislature will continue to fund CPRIT but will make substantial changes to its management structure. 

“I think there’s going to be a focus on what the allocation of funds should be between prevention, research, development or commercialization activities,” he said. “There’s some rebuilding to be done.”

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