Criminal probe adds to cancer agency woes

December 17, 2012 10:29:37 AM

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas put up $3 billion in taxpayer money and promised cancer breakthroughs. But a criminal investigation, widespread rebuke from scientists and the resignations of embattled state officials came faster than medical discoveries. 

 

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas launched in 2009, flaunting the second-biggest trough of cancer research dollars in the country. Nobel laureates eagerly took jobs with the agency and celebrity Lance Armstrong lent visible and then-coveted support. It was an unprecedented state-run battle against a worldwide killer. 

 

Three years later, it's become unhinged by suggestions of politics and personal profit and is on the ropes. 

 

"People expected that we get some good results. Not that we make people rich in private companies doing cancer research," said Cathy Bonner, a cancer survivor who was a close aide to former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, and who helped brainstorm the idea for CPRIT. "I can't imagine anything lower than misuse of research money that's meant to save people's lives." 

 

Embroiled by two lucrative grants approved despite scant review -- or none at all, in one case -- CPRIT is ending a year of turmoil saying the beleaguered agency is cooperating with separate prosecutor investigations. One is by a public corruption unit that convicted former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on money laundering charges, and is beginning this probe trying to recover key internal emails CPRIT says it cannot retrieve. 

 

The investigations opened last week after CPRIT revealed its latest and most serious blunder: Giving a private biomedical startup, Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics, an $11 million award in 2010 without ever scrutinizing the merits of the company's proposal. The discovery came on the heels of the agency funding a $20 million project roundly condemned for not first undergoing an independent scientific review. 

 

On Friday, the federal National Cancer Institute -- which confers CPRIT the prominent status of being an approved funding entity -- confirmed it was evaluating "recent events" at the state agency. 

 

Amid the escalating troubles, an agency that doled out more than $800 million in three years has practically ground to a halt. 

 

CPRIT's peer-review boards that evaluate research proposals are empty -- virtually all members quit in protest, including the chief science officer and the head of the science review council, both Nobel prize winners. They didn't leave quietly: Dr. Phillip Sharp, professor at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said agency leaders "dishonored" the integrity of the independent review process and suggested "suspicions of favoritism" were at hand. 

 

On the other end of treating cancer -- putting drug discoveries on the market and in the hands of patients -- Chief Commercialization Officer Jerry Cobbs resigned in November after the irregularities behind Peloton's funding were uncovered. The agency has said Peloton was unaware its proposal bypassed review, and the company has declined comment. 

 

Executive Director Bill Gimson then completed an extraordinary purging of the agency's leadership last week, saying he would step down from the $300,000-a-year job he held since CPRIT formed.