When it comes to funding cancer research, no entity other than the federal National Institutes of Health draws from a deeper well than the The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Since the taxpayer-funded agency's creation in 2007, backed by Governor Rick Perry and Lance Armstrong, it has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in grants. But its top talent is fleeing the agency, characterizing its selection process as unscientific at best, and political favoritism at worst.
The agency's former chief scientific officer, Dr. Alfred Gilman -- a pharmacology professor emeritus at Dallas' UT Southwestern and a Nobel laureate -- worries about fast-tracked grants approved by the agency without scientific peer review.
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Lately, the agency has focused on "commercialization projects" -- an injection of capital to speed research down the drug-development pipeline. Which would be good, the defecting scientists say, if the projects chosen didn't carry more than just a whiff of politics. Some seven CPRIT scientists handed in letters of resignation last week, according to the Associated Press.
"You may find that it was not worth subverting the entire scientific enterprise -- and my understanding was that the intended goal of C.P.R.I.T. was to fund the best cancer research in Texas -- on account of this ostensibly new, politically driven, commercialization-based mission," wrote scientist Brian Dynlacht in his resignation letter.
The furor began back in May, after the agency awarded a nearly $20 million grant -- its largest ever -- to MD Anderson Cancer Center's "moon shot" to combat the disease. The problem, as Gilman saw it, was that the approval bypassed the agency's scientific council, which is supposed to sign off on proposed projects. MD Anderson's six-and-a-half-page proposal, Gilman wrote, was a "vague organizational plan," according to the journal Nature.
Harvard Medical School professor William G. Kaelin, a member of the agency's scientific review board who resigned last week, said he'd learned that colleagues had been pressured by state officials to reconsider low marks given to certain commercialization projects.