In 2008, when the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas embarked on its mission to cure cancer, the $3 billion program was welcomed with fanfare by voters who had passed a constitutional amendment to establish it.
Four years later, CPRIT’s future is far from certain, as the quasi-governmental agency and its fast-shrinking cast of advisers face accusations of impropriety and criminal and civil investigations.
The Texas attorney general, Travis County district attorney and state auditor’s office are all embroiled in investigations into whether CPRIT officials broke the law in their distribution of grant funds to cancer research and commercialization projects. On Thursday, the influential House Appropriations Committee will meet to discuss whether to continue funding CPRIT, which receives $300 million annually.
CPRIT has been under a critical lens since March, when the resignation of its chief scientific officer, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Alfred Gilman, and his public comments criticizing CPRIT’s grant-making process prompted an exodus of the program’s top scientists. Media reports sparked by the scientists’ departure uncovered ties between grant recipients and state politicians, and evidence that some CPRIT officials may have hastily approved a CPRIT commercialization grant.
The controversy gained momentum in political circles in November, when CPRIT’s oversight committee disclosed it had awarded an $11 million grant to Peloton Therapeutics without proper scientific review. The Travis County district attorney’s office and the attorney general announced they were opening criminal and civil investigations, respectively. On Tuesday, Bill Gimson, the agency’s executive director, submitted his resignation.
“Our concerns are obvious: The public evidence is that money is being handed out based upon political connections and not on business or scientific merit,” the directors of Progress Texas, a liberal political organization, wrote in a letter to the Travis County district attorney’s office. “There are, at a minimum, numerous ethical questions involved, and quite possibly legal issues not confronted in the legislation that created these funds.”