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After Resignations, State Cancer Institute in Flux

Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

The state’s $3 billion effort to battle cancer was delivered a major blow this month when 18 scientific reviewers resigned. (You can read most of their resignation letters here.) Many quit in solidarity with their Nobel Prize-winning scientific director, who has also quit. Most of them allege that the organization was favoring politics, rather than science, when picking which projects to fund.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas was born five years ago when Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the state to issue $3 billion to fund cancer research and prevention. It was championed by Austin cyclist Lance Armstrong on shows like Texas Monthly Talks with Evan Smith.

“I think it will pass,” Armstrong said then. “But I think it needs to pass with a lot of success. I think it needs to pass big.”

The ballot proposition did “pass big,” with 61 percent approval. Millions of dollars started flowing to universities and private companies for research, commercialization and prevention projects.

The project-selection process is driven by peer reviewers. CPRIT’s Oversight Committee, which is composed mostly of political appointees, has the authority to reject an award. CPRIT says that hasn't happened in its five year history. (Note: An earlier version of this story stated that CPRIT's Oversight Committee selected projects, which was inaccurate. We regret the error.)

This May, the institute’s chief scientific officer, Nobel laureate Alfred Gilman, announced that he was resigning in protest.

“The purpose of the resignation is to highlight the fact that high quality peer review must rule the funding decisions that CPRIT makes,” Gilman said. “There’s no room for quotas.”

The final straw, Gilman said, was when CPRIT approved a six-page, $20 million proposal from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston without scientific review.

“Rules were broken and principles were compromised,” he said.

The oversight committee said no rules were broken. It argued that the $20 million proposal was a commercialization project rather than a scientific inquiry, so the scientific review was unnecessary.

That proposal has since been put on hold and will now undergo a second round of review.

Gilman’s resignation was announced in May, but he stepped down officially on Thursday. Eighteen other scientific reviewers resigned along with him. Among them was Brian Dynlacht of the NYU School of Medicine.

“A lot of this is, in my opinion, and it’s only my opinion, politics and cronyism, and that’s really a bad combination when it comes to evaluating science,” Dynlacht said.

CPRIT’s executive director, Bill Gimson, disagrees.

“From my perspective, that’s false,” Gimson said. “Every grant that was recommended for funding by the scientific research council has been funded. And that’s totaling 300-plus grants, so a majority of the peer reviewers feel very comfortable with the grants that they have recommended, and they feel very comfortable with the fact that every grant they’ve recommended has been funded.”

The ballot proposition to create CPRIT was supported by Gov. Rick Perry, and his spokesperson Josh Havens says the organization still has Perry’s support.

“Regardless of what has happened at CPRIT over the last couple weeks, the governor knows that CPRIT will continue working to finding that end, which is the cure for cancer, and we do believe that we will find that cure in our lifetime,” Havens said.

Gimson says the institute is aggressively searching for a new chief scientific officer to replace Gilman and hopes to announce a candidate by the end of the year.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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