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Texas cancer agency reveals another grant misstep

An embattled agency charged with doling out US$3 billion in Texas taxpayer money for cancer research and prevention has discovered during an audit another unreviewed commercialization grant. The Austin-based Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced yesterday that it has put a hold on the $11-million award and that the company that received it, Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics, has resubmitted the proposal for commercial and scientific review.

The finding comes on the heels of months of controversy about an $18-million unreviewed grant that went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

The award to Peloton, titled ‘Company recruitment, relocation and formation’, was made in June 2010, just six months after the company’s founding, without either scientific or commercial review.  It was among the first commercial grants made by CPRIT.

The company was founded by Steve McKnight, chair of biochemistry at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern in Dallas. It includes on its board of directors Nobel laureate Michael Brown, the director of UT Southwestern’s Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease.

CPRIT’s press release yesterday noted that “Peloton was unaware CPRIT processes had not been followed and had played no role in placement of the proposal on the award slate.”

Critics suggested yesterday that the grant is evidence of favoritism by CPRIT to UT Southwestern, which has received many CPRIT grants, and which was the home base of Al Gilman, the Nobel-prizewinning chief scientific officer of CPRIT, who resigned last month in protest over irregular review procedures. Gilman began his job at CPRIT in 2009.

Gilman today protested at the suggestion that he eased the way for the Peloton grant. “I was never sent, and I have not to this day ever seen, the proposal that Peloton sent to CPRIT. The research side of CPRIT had nothing to do with [commercial] review. “

Peloton has also raised $18 million in venture capital financing, which it announced in July 2011.

CPRIT announced last week that Jerry Cobbs, its chief commercialization officer, is resigning, effective today.  In yesterday’s press release, the agency blames Cobbs for the lack of review of the Peloton award, arguing that he “improperly included the Peloton proposal on a commercialization award slate presented to the Institute’s Oversight Committee.”

However, CPRIT’s rules (see page 7) state that executive director William Gimson has final say on which proposals go before the oversight committee for approval. The oversight committee, CPRIT’s governing board, gives final approval to all grant awards.

CPRIT also announced today a change that is not likely to please potential scientific reviewers who are used to an honour system governing peer-review deliberations: an independent third-party monitor will henceforth observe all peer-review meetings and document that the institute’s grant-review policies are followed.



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