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Texas cancer institute digs out after controversy

Months after awarding a controversial grant that prompted the resignation of its chief scientist and led to increased public scrutiny of its managers and peer-review process, the US$3-billion Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) is trying to get back on track.

Meeting on 2 August for the first time since the controversy erupted, the Austin-based institute’s oversight committee approved 45 grants, totalling $114 million, for academic research, commercial development and cancer prevention. Among the stack of grants approved at the meeting were seven Multi-Investigator Research Awards (MIRAs) worth $39 million and three clinical trials that had been shelved at the committee’s last meeting in March. An extra 20 recruitment awards aimed at attracting top cancer scientists to the state were also approved at yesterday’s meeting.

The seven sidelined grants had been a sore point with CPRIT chief scientist and Nobel laureate Alfred Gilman. Not only had the grants already been recommended for approval by the CPRIT’s scientific review committee of outside experts, they also were held back at the same time that the CPRIT was awarding an unprecedented $20-million commercial ‘incubator’ award without scientific review, most of which went to a project led by cancer researcher Lynda Chin at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston. The application’s lack of detail, late submission and speedy approval without scientific review raised eyebrows. The decision was criticized after Gilman’s resignation letter became public in May. A flurry of leaked CPRIT e-mails and an investigation by the Houston Chronicle revealed drama behind the scenes and fueled the fire. The CPRIT later said it would re-review the award on its scientific merits, along with others in the commercial category.

Since then, the CPRIT has pledged to clean up the review process and alleviate concerns from reviewers and stakeholders. At yesterday’s meeting, the institute announced that Patricia Vojack, former senior counsel at the state comptroller’s office, would fill a newly developed position as the CPRIT’s compliance officer to review and monitor the grant-application process from start to finish. “She will be that extra set of eyes that will make sure that we follow our own process,” William Gimson, CPRIT executive director, told Nature.

Phillip Sharp, a Nobelist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and the chair of the CPRIT scientific review committee, said Vojack’s appointment was a step in the right direction. “We have executed the review process with high standards for conflicts of interests and transparency. If the appointment of a compliance officer will increase confidence in the process or improve the process, all the better,” Sharp said.

Notably absent from the meeting was any discussion of the MD Anderson incubator award, which is also now under review by the compliance office at the University of Texas. Although the CPRIT has modified its incubator-grant approval process to include both scientific and commercial reviewers, the exact details of the new process are still to be determined. Chin’s team will have to re-submit the application under the new requirements.

Gilman, who was on hand for the meeting, told board members: “You have a major challenge and a substantial opportunity to regain the trust of [outside] research scientists and physicians… I wish you the best of luck in maintaining the quality of this outstanding group.”

The Texas state legislature begins its biannual meeting in January 2013, and it’s unclear what kind of funding the CPRIT will receive next year. The CPRIT’s board approved the formation of a new subcommittee on governance in anticipation of the legislative session.

Image credit: CPRIT


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