Embattled $3B Texas cancer agency looks forward

October 23, 2012 - 7:33 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — It's been a tumultuous few months for Texas' cancer-fighting program.

The agency, whose annual meeting begins Wednesday, has seen mass resignations, accusations of politics overtaking science and new divisions over how the state should best spend $3 billion in taxpayer money fighting cancer over the next decade.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas is trying to repair a once-celebrated image that has been battered by top scientists publicly condemning the agency over how it operates the nation's second-biggest pot of cancer research dollars.

Thirty-three of the agency's scientific peer reviewers have recently resigned, many in protest. They include a Nobel laureate and other top names in the science community who say politics have seeped into decisions over which projects get funding and which don't.

Bill Gimson, the agency's executive director since it was founded in 2007, again denied those accusations Tuesday on the eve of what is expected to be the agency's largest annual meeting yet. Nearly 900 scientists and agency stakeholders are expected to attend.

"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."

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 is handing 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 reviewed its review process.

Gimson said the agency is still searching for a new chief scientific officer. Agency officials at this week's meeting are also 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, an oncologist who developed the groundbreaking cancer drug Gleevec.

The meeting runs through Friday.

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