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Updated: Despite Moratorium, CPRIT Board Moves Forward

The oversight board for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has decided to move forward on contract negotiations for $183 million in approved grants that have been stalled by a moratorium.

Associate Professor Sung Jung uses mass spectrometers to measure protein in cancer cells at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston Monday, February 11, 2013. Baylor College of Medicine received a $6 million CPRIT grant to purchase advanced laboratory infrastructure and pay researchers to measure all of the metabolites and proteins in cancer cells at the same time.

Updated, Feb. 25, 3:30 p.m.: The oversight board for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has decided to move forward on contract negotiations for approved grants that have been stalled by a moratorium placed on grants in December.

“You still have to do a lot of work to get ready to sign a contract,” said Ellen Read, a spokeswoman for CPRIT, “so the board would like our legal department to go ahead and do that work so that when and if the moratorium is lifted, then the contracts will be in place.”

CPRIT will not sign the contracts, and no money will be awarded until the moratorium is lifted.  

Original story, Feb. 17: When Texas voters approved the creation of the $3 billion Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas in 2007, state officials hoped it would help Texas become an epicenter of cancer research, accelerate the development of life-saving treatments and expand prevention programs. But a series of improprieties at the institute, known as CPRIT, has endangered the state’s mission, and a moratorium placed on CPRIT grants while leaders work to reform the institute has left Texas’ cancer community hanging in the balance.

“The individuals who are facing this disease are too important to allow this to derail such a monumental effort,” said Doug Ulman, president and chief executive of the Livestrong Foundation, which is part of a coalition of national cancer prevention and survivorship groups that is urging state lawmakers to restructure CPRIT, not demolish it. “The cancer community is frustrated, both by the sort of hiccups and missteps, but also by the belief by some that that means everything is bad.”

The moratorium placed on CPRIT grants in December has put the distribution of $182.6 million — including $71.8 million to bring additional research teams to Texas and $16.2 million for cancer prevention services — on hold. As a result, Texas universities are scrambling to keep renowned cancer researchers who were promised millions of dollars to move their labs to Texas. And advocacy groups fear they will be forced to dismantle cancer prevention programs.

“All of the momentum that we’ve worked for in the last two to three years will just be lost if those funds abruptly go away,” said Leticia Goodrich, executive director of the Amarillo Area Breast Health Coalition, which has increased the number of cancer screenings provided to impoverished women by 400 percent with a CPRIT grant that expires in June. “It gives us no time to build our program towards becoming self-sustaining.”

Since 2010, CPRIT has awarded nearly 500 grants totaling $836 million. With that financing, Texas’ higher education institutions have recruited 44 prominent cancer researchers to the state, and 184,000 Texans have been screened for cancer — including 38,000 people who had never received cancer screenings before, according to the institute’s figures.

But three of those grants — totaling $56 million — were approved without proper peer review, according to a state audit released in January. And the Travis County district attorney’s office is conducting an investigation to determine whether the actions of former CPRIT employees were criminal.

The most problematic grant identified by auditors was the institute’s largest and most visionary: $25 million to establish a statewide clinical trial network, known as CTNeT, designed to expand access to cancer services and accelerate testing of new cancer treatments. An audit revealed that three high-ranking CPRIT employees were members of CTNeT’s board of directors, and that the company received $6.8 million in advance payments not permitted under its contract.

CTNeT folded in January, and the state is attempting to recover $1.3 million that was spent on prohibited expenses like employee bonuses and office furniture.

Such statewide clinical trials are “exactly what needs to happen,” said Ulman, who expressed disappointment that rural Texans would continue to have limited access to cancer treatments because of CTNeT’s failure. “We would encourage the leadership to think about how to accomplish that goal in a different manner.”

State Rep. Sarah Davis, a breast cancer survivor, represents a Houston district that is home to four higher education institutions that have collectively been awarded more than $300 million in CPRIT grants. Davis, a Republican, said lawmakers agree that there are some major problems at CPRIT, but she said she has concerns that the moratorium “further erodes the stature and credibility of CPRIT” by scaring scientists and researchers away from Texas.

A researcher recruited with a CPRIT grant to one of the institutions in Davis’ district backed out because of the moratorium, she said, while another “had a whole research team move to Texas and they’re just waiting in limbo.”

Dr. Adam Kuspa, the senior vice president of research at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said CPRIT grants have been critical in attracting scientists to Texas and developing infrastructure for biotechnology labs, both of which are long-term benefits to the Texas economy.

Baylor, for example, has recruited seven nationally recognized cancer researchers with CPRIT grants, but three of them are on hold because of the moratorium, Kuspa said.

“They chose to come here because we were able to offer them a substantial kick-start to their career through the CPRIT award,” Kuspa said. The prospect of being able to apply for additional CPRIT grants for research was also enticing, he said, “so there’s a little bit of angst around whether that will be available to them going forward.”

If the moratorium is not lifted, Baylor will have to divert money from other projects to keep its financial promises to the new recruits, Kuspa said, which could slow the institute’s overall research progress.

The state Legislature’s initial budget proposal for the 2014-15 biennium reduces CPRIT’s financing from $300 million to $10 million — the bare minimum to meet existing obligations. But lawmakers are considering measures to reform the institute, and some are optimistic that financing could be restored before the end of the legislative session.

“What I’m hearing from the members is, ‘Mend it, don’t end it,’” said Wayne Roberts, the associate vice president of public policy at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, who was appointed as CPRIT’s interim executive director in December.

CPRIT’s rescue team — which also includes a fiscal consultant, Billy Hamilton, the state’s former chief revenue estimator, and a chief scientific officer, Margaret Kripke, the former executive vice president at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston — is reviewing past grant applications and carrying out recommendations from state auditors while awaiting further direction from the Legislature.

Roberts said he would not recommend lifting the moratorium or requesting additional financing from the Legislature until CPRIT had “made inroads in regaining their trust.”

The institute’s grant review processes “are only as good as the people implementing them,” he said, “and if they don’t follow them, things go off track.”

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