Despite an ongoing grant moratorium, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas received permission Wednesday from state leaders to move forward on contract negotiations for 25 grants that would bring renowned cancer researchers to Texas.
“We have worked hard to regain trust with our elected officials and the citizens of Texas,” Wayne Roberts, interim executive director at CPRIT, said in a statement. “We take this action as evidence that some progress has been made, and we will continue to work to strengthen this trust during the coming weeks and months.”
The researcher grants represent a combined $72 million and were formally approved by the CPRIT oversight board in late 2012 before the moratorium took effect. Many of the researchers had moved their families and research labs to Texas in anticipation of receiving CPRIT financing.
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.
In recent months, the agency has been embroiled in controversy, after a state audit revealed that three grants — totaling $56 million — were approved without proper peer review. The Travis County district attorney’s office is conducting an investigation to determine whether the actions of former CPRIT employees were criminal. And state leaders called for a moratorium on CPRIT grants in December, which left on hold a combined $183 million in approved grants.
"We believe that CPRIT has sufficiently complied with our December directive to justify moving forward with this extraordinary priority," wrote Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus in a letter to CPRIT officials. They also wrote that additional accountability measures and reforms must be implemented before the moratorium on new CPRIT grants will be lifted.
Senate Bill 149, authored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would restructure CPRIT’s leadership staff, establish a compliance program to ensure all rules and laws are followed and require that each grant undergoes rigorous review. It would also create a committee to receive and review recommendations from peer committees. It would prohibit CPRIT officials from serving on the boards of grantee organizations or the CPRIT Foundation, a nonprofit association that supplements the salaries of CPRIT’s executive director and chief scientific officer.
"Our laws and rules have been twisted in ways that are disappointing and unacceptable," Nelson said in a statement. "SB 149 reinforces our clear legislative intent that CPRIT be operated in a fair, transparent manner that is befitting of its lifesaving mission. We will not allow the actions of a few individuals to stand in the way of our effort to find treatments and cures for this terrible disease."