As accusations of cronyism and ongoing investigations sully the reputation of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are calling for reforms. On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee will hear testimony from CPRIT officials and begin to discuss whether the state should fund the institute in the 2014-15 biennium.
The future of the cancer institute is uncertain; 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. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus on Wednesday called for an immediate moratorium on new CPRIT grants. “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 a letter to the CPRIT oversight committee.
CPRIT isn’t like most state agencies, which receive funding directly from state tax revenue. In 2007 Texas voters approved the creation of the cancer institute through a constitutional amendment, giving lawmakers the authority to sell $3 billion in bonds over 10 years to fund it. That means the state must pay interest on grants distributed by the institute.
“Simply because voters approved bonds doesn’t mean that the Legislature will necessarily appropriate” money for CPRIT grants, said John Barton, a spokesman for the Legislature Budget Board, which will present baseline budget projections for all state agencies, including CPRIT, when the 83rd legislative session begins in January. “Only the Legislature can spend the money."
For the 2012-13 biennium, lawmakers approved the sale of $294 million in bonds for cancer research and commercialization and prevention projects, plus $2.8 million for CPRIT administration costs. Since 2010, the institute has funded 502 grants with bond money for a total of $840 million. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where CPRIT's former chief scientific officer Dr. Alfred Gilman conducted research, has received the most grant money, some $192 million. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has received the second most, $135 million.
The investigations into the cancer institute began after CPRIT's oversight committee publicly disclosed an internal report that found that an $11 million grant to Peloton Therapeutics had been approved without scientific review. After the disclosure, media reports revealed potential conflicts of interest involving that grant.
Peloton Therapeutics was founded in 2010, just months before it received the CPRIT grant, to turn research conducted at UT-Southwestern into cancer-fighting drugs. It was started with an initial investment of $18 million, partially funded by Dallas philanthropist Peter O’Donnell, who has donated to the campaigns of Perry and Dewhurst.
The Dallas Morning News reported that O’Donnell had given $1.6 million to the CPRIT Foundation, a non-profit associated with the institute. Under state law, the CPRIT Foundation is not allowed to accept donations from CPRIT grant recipients.