State leaders on Wednesday called for a moratorium on grants issued by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus called on the CPRIT oversight board to immediately address concerns about the institute's grant-making process that have been raised amid ongoing investigations by the Texas attorney general and the Travis County district attorney's office.
"The mission of defeating cancer is too important to be derailed by inadequate processes and a lack of oversight," Perry, Dewhurst and Straus wrote in a letter to the CPRIT board. In the letter, they asked the board to cooperate with the investigations, implement recommended changes and hire new leadership. "It is important that we restore the confidence of the Texas taxpayers who approved this important initiative before new funds are dispersed," they wrote.
In 2007, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment that gave lawmakers the authority to sell bonds for $3 billion over 10 years to attract cancer research, cancer fighting commercialization projects and cancer prevention projects to Texas. The future of the institute is uncertain, as the Texas attorney general, Travis County district attorney and state auditor’s office are all investigating whether CPRIT officials broke the law in their distribution of grant funds to cancer research and commercialization projects.
Republican and Democratic leaders from the state Senate also called for major reform of CPRIT on Wednesday. State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, an author of the bill that established CPRIT, filed legislation that would create a compliance program to ensure the institute follows state statutes. It would also institute new protections to prevent conflicts of interest in the grant-making process, among other reforms.
"I still believe in the mission to find cures and treatments for this terrible disease, which directly and indirectly impacts millions of Texans," Nelson said in a statement. "For CPRIT to succeed, the public must have faith that it is operating in a fair, transparent manner and in compliance with the rules and laws we put in place to ensure accountability."
State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, also urged Perry to add reform of CPRIT to his list of emergency items in the upcoming legislative session. She asked the governor to put an immediate moratorium on additional commercialization grants by CPRIT until the Legislature could take action.
The investigations began after CPRIT's oversight committee publicly disclosed an internal report that found an $11 million grant to Peloton Therapeutics had been approved without scientific review. After the disclosure, the media discovered potential conflicts of interest involved with that grant.
Peloton Therapeutics was founded in 2010, just months before it received the CPRIT grant, to transform research out of University of Texas Southwestern into cancer fighting drugs. It was started with an initial investment of $18 million, partially funded by Dallas philanthropist Peter O’Donnell.
The Dallas Morning News reported that O’Donnell, who has contributed millions to fund research at the University of Texas has given $1.6 million since 2009 to the CPRIT Foundation, a nonprofit associated with the institute. Dr. Alfred Gilman, the former chief scientific officer at CPRIT, whose salary was supplemented by the CPRIT Foundation, performed research at UT Southwestern. Gilman, who was in charge of the scientific review process, was at the Oversight Committee board meeting when the board improperly approved the Peloton grant, but raised no objections. And emails that allegedly existed between Gilman and the former chief commercialization officer Jerry Cobbs cannot be found.
Gilman told the Morning News, “The bottom line is that I was never asked to review the Peloton proposal; it was never sent to me by Peloton or by CPRIT and I have never seen it.”