Answers sought as $3B Texas cancer agency meets

AUSTIN, Texas - Texas put $3 billion on the table to prove it was serious about fighting cancer, but it will take more than money to convince scientists that's still the case.

Hundreds of the nation's top cancer researchers want answers and reassurance this week from the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which is reeling after mass resignations and serious internal accusations that have put the nation's second-biggest pot of cancer research dollars in jeopardy.

The agency's annual conference begins Wednesday, with nearly 900 scientists and agency stakeholders expected to attend. Among the notables unlikely to show up: nearly three dozen renowned scientists, including a Nobel laureate, who severed ties with CPRIT this month over a controversial award.

Bill Gimson, the executive director of CPRIT since it was founded in 2007, is denying accusations that politics influence funding decisions as the agency hosts what is expected to be its largest annual conference yet. For three days, CPRIT officials will try to repair a once-celebrated image that was hailed as an unprecedented state-level effort to fight cancer.

"Obviously we will address issues that have surfaced," Gimson said. "I think, more importantly, we will reconfirm our commitment to a gold-standard peer review and picking the very best projects."

Thirty-three of the agency's scientific peer reviewers have recently resigned, many in protest. Nobel laureate Dr. Phillip Sharp, who headed the agency's scientific review council, wrote in a resignation letter this month that the agency is making funding decisions that carry a "suspicion of favoritism" in how the state hands out taxpayer dollars.

Others were more blunt: Dr. William Kaelin of Harvard Medical School, who also served on the council, accused the agency of "hucksterism."

The backlash stems from a $20 million commercialization grant awarded earlier this year for a so-called incubator project at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. It was among the largest grants in the agency's young history and was approved without a scientific review, leading the agency's chief scientific officer to step down.

"If I could do that one grant over again, I would do it differently," said Gimson, adding that the agency has since examined its review process.

Gimson said the agency is still searching for a new chief scientific officer and doesn't believe the criticism coming from within the medical community will hamper efforts to replace those who've resigned.

Agency officials at this week's meeting also are scheduled to discuss — but take no formal action on — proposed changes to how the state divvies up grant awards between research, prevention and commercialization efforts to bring new drugs to market. The agency has awarded nearly $700 million in grants since 2009, mostly to fund research.

The keynote speaker Wednesday is Dr. Brian Druker, the celebrated oncologist who developed the groundbreaking cancer drug Gleevec.

The conference runs through Friday.