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Texas cancer institute CEO: Research and prevention need state support

Wayne Roberts, CEO of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, said the institute has played a critical role in researching and preventing cancer and needs state funding to continue.

Wayne Roberts is the CEO of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Ten years ago this month, Texas voters overwhelmingly supported creating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. The idea was to make Texas a leader in fighting cancer by giving $3 billion in grants across the state for research and prevention. But in 2012, allegations arose that millions of taxpayer dollars were distributed in grants without the proper peer review, miring the institute, known as CPRIT, in scandal.

Current CEO Wayne Roberts joined the institute in 2013 to help it recover from the scandal, following lengthy recommendations from the state auditor to restructure the organization's oversight.

Designed to last 15 years on $3 billion of state bond funding, CPRIT has just under $1 billion and five years left for future grants. Some in the Legislature now question the state's role in financing the institute in the future. Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, introduced an unsuccessful bill this year aimed at weaning the institute off of state funding. 

But in a conversation with The Texas Tribune, Roberts questioned the sustainability of the organization if state funding is not renewed.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Texas Tribune: When you joined the institute, what did you do to prevent another scandal from happening?

Roberts: It’s important to put what happened into perspective. Three out of 498 awards at that time, or six-tenths of 1 percent, had issues.

I worked very closely with the Legislature to make sure that they got the information they needed to strengthen our statutes. Prior to the very first legislative meeting in 2013, the agency began implementing the auditor’s January recommendations. And we implemented all of them, both the legislative changes to strengthen our statutes and the state auditor’s recommendations, probably in record time.

Today I am required to certify, under oath, that every step in the grant-making process has been followed before a grant can be acted upon by our board. The certifications are posted to our website so that everyone can see my attestation that the process was followed.

I had a mantra that I had developed that I still use today: We will adhere to the process; we will document that adherence; and we will do so with maximum transparency. And I do believe that the agency has fulfilled all three of those aspects of the mantra.

TT: What would you say have been CPRIT's biggest accomplishments so far?

Roberts: An excellent proxy measure at this point in time as to how well we’re doing are the number of clinical trials that CPRIT has funded through its grantees. To date, we have about 108 clinical trials with nearly 9,800 patients. These are patients that are being treated with pharmaceuticals whose development has been funded by CPRIT. There are 9,800 people that have hope today, where they would not have had hope yesterday.

Another metric would have to come from our prevention program. Our prevention program has touched all 254 counties. We’ve provided some 3.9 million services, including educational and training activities, to practitioners, and also screenings. There are 12,000 people who as a result of CPRIT’s grants now are aware that they have a cancer or a likelihood of getting cancer, which they can act on proactively. Whether we have saved those individuals' lives, I won’t venture. But if you ask them, I think they will probably say that we have.

In product development, the new life science companies we have created or brought to Texas would be another benchmark of success. To date, we have either brought or created 29 companies to the state of Texas from around the world. We have to date funded those 29 companies with $330 million. That investment has brought a hard $1.37 billion in follow-on private sector funding to the state of Texas.  

TT: Sen. Schwertner introduced an unsuccessful bill during this year's legislative session for CPRIT to plan for eventual self sufficiency when its $3 billion in state funding runs out. Do you think CPRIT has a future as a financially self-sufficient organization?

Roberts: Self-sufficiency is not contemplated in our enabling legislation or the constitution. Had it been, our portfolio would be significantly different from what it is today. We would have funded more later-stage drug and product development to compete with private venture funding. Instead we have tended to focus on very early stage, proof of concept, very first stage clinical trials.

At the end of 2023, if the Legislature wants to continue CPRIT, it will be up to them to find a way to fund it. My experience after 40 years of working with the Legislature is that if they want something done, they’ll figure out how to fund it.

If CPRIT is not continued, then we will ride off into the sunset, knowing that we’ve been part of a fantastic historical undertaking. No other state has ever funded cancer research to this level. We’re doing exactly what the citizens of Texas bargained for when they approved the creation of CPRIT and dedicated $3 billion to fight cancer here. 

TT: Why is it important for CPRIT to continue?

Roberts: I still get asked on occasion, "When are you going to discover a cure for cancer?" Cancer is constantly changing; that’s its nature. Today, in many respects, science has made cancer a manageable disease, but a cure is not likely going to come from an individual breakthrough. It’s going to come from an ecosystem of researchers and healthcare professionals collaborating and pushing the boundaries of medicine. CPRIT has brought incredible momentum to this ecosystem that will benefit not only Texans but every human on this planet.

Finally, prevention is a cure for cancer. Don’t smoke, wear sunscreen and get a colonoscopy.

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