Texas Turmoil: 'Vultures' In, Nobel Laureates Out

Nick Mulcahy

October 16, 2012

October 16, 2012 — There was an exodus of top scientists at a major cancer research organization in Texas last week. Eight staff members resigned, citing ethical concerns about the taxpayer-funded agency, according to press reports.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) was created in 2007, when voters approved a state constitutional amendment. Since its inception, it has received $1 billion in appropriations from the Texas legislature to fund academic research projects, public prevention initiatives, and biotech cancer start-ups.

CPRIT hands out more cancer-related research dollars that any organization in the United States other than the National Institutes of Health, according to news sources.

But the organization's most noted accomplishment to date might be a Texas-sized controversy that involves another major institution in the state, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

The war of words about CPRIT escalated last week as top scientists, who were responsible for evaluating the scientific worthiness of proposed projects, headed for the exits.

Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp, PhD, quit his job as the chair of the CPRIT Scientific Review Council. In his resignation letter, Dr. Sharp, who is also on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, wrote that some of CPRIT's funding decisions have a "suspicion of favoritism." Another departing member of the scientific staff warned about "politically driven" funding and the subversion of scientific enterprise, according to press reports.

But the critical tenor of these accusations was no match for recent words from the organization's former chief scientific officer, Alfred Gilman, MD, PhD.

Dr. Gilman, who is also a Nobel laureate, resigned from his CPRIT post in May to protest a major grant to M.D. Anderson that had not been properly reviewed. Now he is suggesting that the billion-dollar CPRIT is a carcass ripe for financial plundering.

The vultures lie low for a couple years, figuring out how the system works.

"A friend of mine experienced in these matters told me this is the way it always works when you put a large amount of money on the table," Dr. Gilman said in an article published in the Houston Chronicle. "The vultures lie low for a couple years, figuring out how the system works. Then they come in for the feast. The M.D. Anderson grant was the first course of that feast."

The "first course" that Dr. Gilman referred to is an $18 million grant that was awarded to M.D. Anderson and Rice University in Houston for a research-business incubator project involving principal investigator Lynda Chin, MD, a physician at M.D. Anderson and the wife of Ronald DePinho, MD, who is president of the renowned cancer center.

The grant is reportedly the largest ever awarded by CPRIT. In fact, a review of CPRIT-funded projects by Medscape Medical News revealed that the largest grant to date was for $15 million, but that most grants were for 6-figure sums.

The M.D. Anderson–Rice proposal was handled in a suspicious manner; the higher-ups at CPRIT hastily processed the grant application, circumventing CPRIT scientific reviewers, according to a Houston Chronicle investigative report. The grant has since been the subject of inquiries from the University of Texas system and the state legislature.

Application Withdrawn

The $18 million grant was reportedly the primary impetus for Dr. Gilman's resignation. Dr. Gilman was at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas when he was hired by CPRIT to establish a scientifically rigorous review process that would inform and advise funding decisions. Dr. Gilman hired Dr. Sharp to lead a committee of scientific reviewers, all of whom were out-of-state academics with no ties to cancer businesses or institutions in Texas.

Now, Drs. Gilman and Sharp and their entire team of reviewers are gone.

However, the controversial grant that originally outraged Dr. Gilman was never actually funded, a spokesperson for M.D. Anderson told Medscape Medical News.

Instead, M.D. Anderson offered to withdraw the application and resubmit it later, and CPRIT agreed.

The grant involves M.D. Anderson's new Institute of Applied Cancer Science, which is "focused on accelerated development of innovative oncology medicines to significantly improve survival for cancer patients." The institute developed a business plan to submit in response to CPRIT's request for applications for a life science incubator infrastructure award.

It is these incubator "commercialization" projects that are apparently at the root of much of the CPRIT controversy. Most of the CPRIT money has gone to academically based research; only a minority of funds has gone to prevention efforts and commercial projects.

But the agency wants to increase the money given to business start-ups, according to reports. In fact, business concerns sometimes trump scientific concerns at the CPRIT, suggested one of the departing scientific reviewers.

According to the Associated Press, William Kaelin, MD, from Harvard Medical School in Boston, said in his resignation letter that "he recently learned 2 fellow reviewers who rejected the science behind 2 proposed commercialization projects were asked by state officials to reconsider their low marks."

"In this environment, I am not confident that scientific quality and rigor will triumph over grandiose promise and hucksterism," Dr. Kaelin wrote.