Posted on behalf of Meredith Wadman.
Margaret Kripke, the newly appointed chief scientific officer at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) in Austin, took questions from reporters in a 25-minute teleconference this afternoon. Kripke takes the job on 7 January, filling the shoes of Nobel laureate Al Gilman, who resigned in October. Since Kripke accepted the job a couple of weeks ago — a fact announced only yesterday — the agency’s chief commercialization officer has left, and today, the departure of its executive director, Bill Gimson, was announced. Thirty of its scientific reviewers have also resigned. Here is a summary of today’s news conference
The following questions from reporters are paraphrased; Kripke’s answers are verbatim, except for the sections in brackets, which are paraphrased.
What is your reaction to Mr. Gimson resigning?
I haven’t had an opportunity to really digest it. I’m of course sorry to hear it because he seemed to be doing a reasonably good job. I’m waiting to see what the board will say about his letter.
Who will you be reporting to?
I have no idea at this juncture. Until the 17th of January [I will be reporting to] Mr. Gimson.
Will there be quotas or caps on research versus other kinds of grants, or quotas reflecting geographical distribution of grants?
I don’t think there will be geographical distribution quotas. …In terms of other uses…there is discussion about some kind of target for how much money would go to product development versus…research but those are actually in early stages of discussion… I certainly do [hope to have strong input into that].
What prompted you to accept this job amid all the turmoil?
There has been more turmoil since I accepted the position… The reason [I took the job] is I think the whole concept of CPRIT is just fabulous… I think it really has the potential to put Texas on the map in terms of cancer research… I have just been such a strong supporter and I felt that it’s being beleaguered at the moment and I want to do whatever I can to help.
Did anything in particular prompt you to take the job?
There’s another issue that’s very important to me. Following my service on the president’s cancer panel it’s become clear to me that there are things that can be done to accelerate the pace of cancer research.
I’m thinking really of just broadening the research portfolio and having a better balance between clinical, translational and basic research. And also putting more emphasis on prevention research and less …on trying to cure established, advanced cancer.
Did you see validity in Al Gilman’s concerns?
It’s hard for me to say because I wasn’t involved in CPRIT at that time.
How many scientific peer reviewers do you have and how many do you need to recruit to fill vacancies from those who recently resigned?
It’s going to be a real challenge. That will of course be my first challenge, to try to restore the credibility of the review process and to bring some new reviewers into the mix. I don’t know how difficult that will be. There were a total of 30 or so resignations from the current roster.
Will you restore the system that was in place or do something different?
My intention is to try to restore the system that Dr. Gilman had set up. The peer review system that he has initiated is really terrific…. People that have been involved with it say that it’s highly respected. The structure was quite innovative. I hope that we can rebuild that structure.
Do you have specific reviewers in mind to try to recruit?
I certainly have people in mind. Whether I will be able to recruit them or not is another question.
There has been friction between MD Anderson and the University of Texas Southwestern, which so far has gotten the most money from CPRIT. Are you concerned about real or perceived bias favouring one institution?
It’s certainly a concern [that there could be bias involved. And] there will be a perception of some conflict of interest on my part. I hope to be able to dispel that. Once I commit to CPRIT as my number one priority, I hope people will see that. And also the peer review system which I hope to rebuild, under that system I would have absolutely nothing to do with the prioritization of grants or the review of grants.
Are you supportive of the agency’s commercialization arm?
First, I think commercialization was a very bad choice of term. I think what they’re really trying to do is develop products that would be beneficial to cancer patients. ….that’s an important part of getting things out of the lab and into patients….I’m not supportive of using all of the funds [for] that kind of activity.
The law that established CPRIT mandated that 10% of its budget go to prevention. When you say you want more emphasis on prevention, are you saying that you want to boost that proportion?
What’s in the law is that 10% is to go to prevention activities. That is, getting people to have mammograms and colonoscopies [and the like]… population-based based work applying what we [already] know about prevention. There’s a whole field of prevention research and early detection research that tries to determine better ways to [prevent cancer.]
How much of CPRIT’s research spending has gone to prevention research so far?
Very little… I would like to encourage people who are doing prevention research to apply for funding from CPRIT. I have no idea how much is out there that could be funded.
Do you have an opinion on commercialization comprising 17% of total CPRIT funds disbursed to date? Is that the right amount?
I don’t [have an opinion]. The opinion has to come partly from people’s expectations. What did the voters want when they put [CPRIT] into place?… It’s very difficult to put a number on that at this point.
What in your career experience best equips you for the job?
I’ve had a lot of experience in science policy. I did a lot of work on science strategy for the EPA years and years ago. I was in charge of research at MD Anderson for a number of years. What really interested me about this position came from my experience on the president’s cancer panel, which every year looks at a different aspect of the cancer problem. It really changed my thinking… I came to the conclusion that just doing more basic science is not going to get us there. [I am] very committed… to try to broaden the portfolio for research to try to move things from the [lab to the bedside].