Scientists flee $3B Texas cancer research fund

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas--one of the largest state government programs to fund oncology research outside of the NIH--faces increasing uncertainty and controversy over how it chooses which projects to fund.

As reported by The Associated Press this week, at least 7 additional scientists left the $3 billion program in protest, accusing it of putting commercial interests ahead of science. It comes in the context of a larger issue that is increasingly apparent with state-funded scientific research. In an era of fiscal austerity where state spending on public initiatives continues to contract, pressure is worsening to show results with programs that remain funded, and it's not just hitting the CPRIT program. The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, is changing course after its initial launch to enhance stem cell research was fueled by a $3 billion public bond. Rather than funding basic research, new CIRM grants are being directed more toward clinical development, with an eye on advancing compounds to eventually reach patients and demonstrate taxpayer-funded results.

Still, the CPRIT controversy is drawing far more of a negative response. Among the people who left its ranks: Phillip A. Sharp, a Nobel laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Bryan Dynlacht, a researcher at the New York University School of Medicine. Their departure follows the loss of Dr. Alfred Gilman, a Nobel laureate himself who resigned as the CPRIT chief scientific officer in May over a $20 million drug development/commercialization grant the organization awarded to MD Anderson Cancer Center and Rice University. It went toward a proposal, they claim, that circumvented CPRIT's scientific review process. Dynlacht, in his resignation letter quoted by The Associated Press, accuses CPRIT of selling out to commercial interests.

"You may find that it was not worth subverting the entire scientific enterprise--and my understanding was that the intended goal of CPRIT was to fund the best cancer research in Texas--on account of this ostensibly new, politically driven, commercialization-based mission," Dynlacht wrote. Gilman and Sharp, in an Oct. 12 op-ed published by the Houston Chronicle, knocked CPRIT for putting "several well-regarded, multi-investigator, multi-institutional collaborative research projects in the freezer for months" in favor of the $20 million project.

They blasted CPRIT for appointing only one member to its 11-person oversight committee who "has any direct knowledge of cancer, medical practice or research." And they also urged CPRIT to put science first, and noted that commercialization "is essential but comes second," as is done "in the thriving biotech corridors of Boston and San Francisco."

Thus, a major crisis continues to fester with CPRIT, which launched with great fanfare based by Gov. Rick Perry and cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. CPRIT, since 2009, has awarded close to $700 million in grants, The Associated Press reports. In response, the story notes, CPRIT executive director Bill Gimson brushed off the scientists' accusations as "false and misinformed." Meanwhile, CPRIT is still going ahead with its 2012 Innovations in Cancer Prevention and Research Conference, scheduled to run Oct. 24-26, 2012, in Austin, Texas.

- read the AP story (via NYT)
- here's the Houston Chronicle op-ed
- check out the Dallas Business Journal's take