Major Cancer Agency Freezes New Grants

Nick Mulcahy

December 21, 2012

As of this week, one of the largest funders of cancer research in the United States has temporarily stopped awarding grants, according to news reports.

The move by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), which is a state-sponsored taxpayer-funded agency, was in reaction to pressure and requests from Texas officials, including Governor Rick Perry.

The grant freeze is the latest development in an ongoing battle about questionable funding operations at the agency.

CPRIT reportedly hands out more cancer-related research dollars than any organization in the United States other than the National Institutes of Health.

Since 2007, CPRIT has channeled $1 billion in appropriations from the Texas legislature to fund cancer-related academic research projects, public prevention initiatives, and biotech cancer start-ups. These latter "commercialization" projects are a major source of agency turmoil.

Much of the controversy revolves around 2 large commercialization grants, both of which reportedly did not undergo the agency's standard review process. The awards total about $30 million.

The first controversial grant, for $18 million, was awarded to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Rice University in Houston, Texas, for a research–business incubator project. It was the largest award ever granted by CPRIT, as reported by Medscape Medical News.

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 published earlier this year. The grant's principal investigator is Lynda Chin, MD, a physician at M.D. Anderson and the wife of Ronald DePinho, MD, who is president of the cancer center.

In the past couple of weeks, it was reported that a second major grant, of $11 million, to Peloton Therapeutics (Dallas, Texas) also skirted the agency's review process.

Two weeks ago, the embattled executive director of CPRIT, Bill Gimson, finally resigned as questions abounded about his leadership. In addition, a Texas state office that investigates public corruption and criminal activity opened an inquiry into the agency.

Accusations of insider deals and cronyism have dogged the agency in the past year, as CPIRT's top scientists resigned in protest and made accusations on their way out the door.

Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp, PhD, quit his job as chair of the CPRIT Scientific Review Council in October. 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 sharpest criticism came 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 the aforementioned M.D. Anderson grant. He suggested that some grant recipients are "vultures."

"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."