AUSTIN, Texas—Thirty-three scientists resigned from a state-funded cancer research institute this month, with some publicly complaining that political appointees were trying to improperly influence how its money was doled out.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, created in 2007 with a mission to spend $3 billion on cancer research and prevention by 2020, ranks as one of the most ambitious government efforts to combat the disease at a time of diminished public funding.
Known as CPRIT and financed with public bonds, the institute has disbursed $755 million in cancer funding over the last three years—second in the U.S. only to the National Institutes of Health. Lance Armstrong, the now-disgraced cyclist, cancer survivor and Austin resident, had campaigned across the state to persuade voters to pass the ballot proposition that created it.
But the institute has been battered by infighting between the panel of scientists who provide advice on research-grant requests—which numbered 140 before the 33 resigned—and its oversight committee, which includes laypeople appointed by state political leaders.
Some of the departing scientists—who include Nobel laureates Phillip A. Sharp and Alfred Gilman, who had been the institute's chief scientific officer—said in resignation letters and interviews with The Wall Street Journal that they were protesting a willingness by the oversight committee to fund commercial projects aimed at developing new cancer therapies, regardless of whether the projects had been thoroughly vetted by the scientists.
The dispute reflects a larger debate in the cancer-research world between groups who want to focus on scientific research to answer basic questions about the disease, and those who favor investment in commercial projects such as drug companies that can bring products quickly to market.
Scientists who remain on the institute's research-advisory panel say that Texas' unusual commitment to cancer research is too important to abandon.
Richard Kolodner said he has decided to remain a scientific adviser provided the institute can retain the integrity of its peer-review process under the scientist chosen to succeed Dr. Gilman as research director.
"A lot of money has gone into recruiting good scientists to Texas, which will pay dividends to the development of cancer research for years to come," said Mr. Kolodner, a professor at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of California, San Diego. "It's a very forward-thinking move on the part of the state of Texas."
One of the institute's disputed decisions was an $18 million grant its oversight committee approved in March to help the University of Texas' MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston fund the development of new cancer drugs. The institute's scientific advisers argued that the oversight committee should have sent them the proposal first, to determine whether it was worthy of the funds.
"It is critically important for commercialization potential to be secondary at all times to scientific quality," Monica Bertagnolli of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, one of the departing scientists, wrote in an Oct. 10 resignation letter.
William Gimson, the institute's executive director, said in an interview that the oversight committee didn't break any rules in approving the MD Anderson funding. Under the institute's rules at the time, that type of grant didn't have to undergo scientific peer review, he said.
Still, as a result of the scientists' complaints, he said the institute had suspended the MD Anderson grant, though the hospital will have a chance to reapply for the funding.
"We will be good stewards of the public trust," Mr. Gimson said at a previously scheduled cancer conference the institute is holding this week, promising a "gold standard" scientific-review process.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry added an endorsement Thursday, telling conference attendees that the institute was serving its intent by thrusting Texas into "the middle of the conversation" about finding a cure for cancer.
Nonetheless, the gathering occasionally took on a defensive tone in the wake of the complaints from the departing scientists, with Mr. Gimson acknowledging in one speech that the institute had received "bad attention" and that it had listened to its detractors.
In an interview, MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho said that its grant application got "pulled into this vortex of a fight between research and commercialization folks." The cancer center, he added, plans to resubmit its proposal and "welcomes the most rigorous scientific and business review possible."
Charles Tate, a Houston venture capitalist who is member of the institute's oversight committee, said the institute is reaching out to scientists and cancer organizations across the state to get input into how funding should be divided between commercial projects and pure cancer research.
"I think way too much of our funds have been spent on basic research," Mr. Tate said.
In addition to the MD Anderson grant, scientists on the review panel complained that some oversight committee members unfairly questioned whether the scientists steered too much money to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Dr. Gilman, the institute's former chief scientific officer, was closely connected to the medical center, including serving for a period as its dean.
"The idea that I could rig things is ridiculous," said Dr. Gilman, who left the institute earlier this month because of disagreements with the oversight committee, including over the MD Anderson grant.
Mr. Gimson denied that the oversight committee accused Dr. Gilman or other scientists of favoritism towards U.T. Southwestern. "Dr. Gilman has the highest level of integrity," he said.
Theremin, Moog Modules, & Tenori-on
solo live performance.Sunday Nov. 4/2012
Pete Dako © SOCAN 2012