More than 10 months after state leaders halted grant operations at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas amid allegations of cronyism and misspent money, the state’s $3 billion enterprise is getting back to the business of fighting cancer — with restructured leadership.
“There were many people in the Legislature who had completely lost confidence in CPRIT and wanted to do away with it entirely,” said Pete Geren, president of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation and a new member of the CPRIT oversight committee. “The moratorium was unfortunate, but to lose CPRIT entirely would have been a tragedy.”
In 2007, Texas voters approved the creation of CPRIT to finance $3 billion in cancer prevention, research and commercialization projects over 10 years. In December 2012, after a series of media reports exposed troubles within the agency, leaders placed a moratorium on new grants. A state audit released in January revealed that $56 million in grants had been approved without proper peer review.
“There was the necessity to right the ship, so to speak,” said Wayne Roberts, the interim executive director of CPRIT who was appointed shortly after the moratorium was issued.
The agency’s oversight committee has been replaced, though an investigation cleared the previous members of any criminal wrongdoing. And during this year’s legislative session, lawmakers voted to finance CPRIT’s $595 million 2012-13 operational budget after also overhauling the agency’s conflict-of-interest standards and grant approval processes, ensuring more effective oversight of awarded grants.
With the moratorium lifted in October, Roberts has begun finalizing contracts for more than $168 million in grants that were initially approved in August and December of 2012. So far, he has finalized 26 of the 118 grants that were stalled by the moratorium. The oversight board will set its priorities for future grant applicants at its Nov. 22 meeting.
The restructuring of the agency has strengthened the oversight committee’s discretion over CPRIT grants, said Roberts, who explained that the agency’s former grant processes consolidated power with the executive director. Previously, the oversight committee only had the power to approve a slate of grants chosen by the executive director. Now, a committee composed of CPRIT’s chief executive officer, chief research officer, chief scientific officer and the commissioner of the Department of State Health Services must review all of the grants, and then the oversight committee can vote on grants individually.
Cancer prevention advocates and researchers are looking forward to continuing CPRIT’s mission.
Dr. Gail Tomlinson, director of the pediatric cancer program at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, was one of the researchers affected by the moratorium. Although CPRIT financed two years of the institute’s research on pediatric liver cancer, the moratorium stalled final contract negotiations for an additional CPRIT grant that was tentatively approved to expand her research.
“It was difficult,” she said. “We couldn’t create any new data because we clearly didn’t have funds for that. And the analysis was put on hold.”
Tomlinson is looking forward to regaining momentum. She said CPRIT offers a unique opportunity for Texas institutions to fill gaps in cancer research amid cutbacks in federal financing. For example, CPRIT has formed multiple consortiums of institutions across Texas to study pediatric tumors, Tomlinson said, such as the group she participates in that studies pediatric liver cancer.
Since 2010, the agency has awarded nearly 500 grants totaling $836 million and screened nearly 300,000 Texans for cancer. The majority of CPRIT’s grantees continued their work throughout the moratorium, but some organizations whose grants expired were forced to discontinue screening programs or delay research projects.
“Believe me, we all sighed a huge sigh of relief” when the moratorium was lifted, said Dorothy Gibbons, CEO of The Rose, a nonprofit that offers breast and cervical cancer screenings to uninsured women in East Texas. The Rose, which received $3.8 million in CPRIT grants, has screened nearly 9,000 women so far with that financing. The Rose’s largest CPRIT grant does not expire until December. Although Gibbons expects a backlog of grant applications, she remains optimistic about the future of CPRIT.
“The potential of losing CPRIT was more than most of us even wanted to think about, because that was our only hope out there,” she said, adding, “Every step they took brought the public’s trust up.”