AUSTIN, Texas -- An embattled $3 billion cancer-fighting fund in Texas will recover from a controversy that led two Nobel laureates and others to resign over allegations that politics trumped science in spending decisions, state officials told stakeholders Wednesday.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas opened its annual meeting under a cloud of scrutiny brought by the mass resignation of nearly three dozen scientists, some of whom criticized the fund for "hucksterism" and "suspicion of favoritism" on their way out the door.
All were out-of-state peer reviewers, who served on the first line of choosing which proposals were worthy of taxpayer dollars.
The state is trying to reverse the damage this week and kicked off the agency's conference with a vote of support from Dr. Brian Druker, who is behind the breakthrough cancer drug Gleevec and among the world's most foremost cancer researchers.
CPRIT Executive Director Bill Gimson then told a crowd of scientists and industry executives that the agency would flourish despite the fallout, vowing that CPRIT would ultimately rewrite the books on state-led research initiatives.
"We're a learning organization," Gimson said. "We listened. We're committed to getting it right."
After delivering the keynote speech on his research, Druker told The Associated Press he has some concerns about CPRIT's ability to restock its crucial peer review panels following such pointed public criticisms by heavyweights in the science community. But he praised the "integrity" of the agency's leadership and said he was confident of the future.
"They've had some controversy and some concerns and issues," Druker said. "But it's still an unprecedented opportunity. If it's done right, it's going to make a big impact."
Started in 2007 behind a push led by cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and Gov. Rick Perry, CPRIT spent most of its first five years basking in acclaim and industry awe of the unprecedented amount of taxpayer dollars committed to a state-run, cancer-fighting effort. Only the National Institutes of Health now doles out more cancer funding dollars than CPRIT, which has so far awarded nearly $700 million total.
But the plaudits abruptly gave way to rebukes starting in May, and the fissures came from within.
Dr. Alfred Gilman, the agency's chief scientific officer and a Nobel laureate, announced his resignation following a $20 million award that never received a full scientific review. The money was for a so-called incubator project at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one of the country's top research institutes.
Gilman accused the agency's oversight board of ramrodding the project through the application process, despite the proposal being just six pages long. Gimson has said the type of proposal didn't require a full scientific review under agency rules but has since conceded missteps in how the award was handled.
Candid and inflammatory internal emails later made public ("I told Gimson this was the bomb that would destroy CPRIT") exposed the depths of the rift, and other resignations followed. Thirty-three scientific peer reviewers have since cut ties with the agency, many just this month, which coincided with Gilman's last day.
Gimson repeatedly emphasized the agency's commitment to an inscrutable peer-review process during his opening remarks Wednesday. He added that every grant proposal ever recommended for funding by the agency's science review panels has been approved by the 11-member oversight board, which is made up of political appointees.
The recent barrage of unflattering press has raised concerns among some scientists that the state's annual trough of $300 million in taxpayer funding is at risk. The Texas Legislature reconvenes in January, and lawmakers could cast a more critical eye toward the agency while facing pressures to shrink the state budget.
The bulk of CPRIT grants go to research, but the agency also funds drug-commercializing efforts and prevention programs.
According to Gimson, funds from the agency have enabled 200,000 screenings statewide for cancers include breast and colorectal.
"If the Legislature chooses not to fund it anymore, so much harm would come to people in West Texas that would not come if it remains," said Dr. Patrick Reynolds, director of the cancer center at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. "It's unthinkable."
CPRIT's meeting runs through Friday. The conference also is set to tackle the significant issue of whether CPRIT should put less money into research and more into private startups that are trying to bring drugs to the market. In Texas, the governor's office already doles out hundreds of millions of dollars in private tech investments.
A final decision on whether CPRIT will change its funding allocations is expected next year.
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