AUSTIN – The state cancer institute Thursday approved a slate of research grants set aside last spring to fast-track funding for a controversial $20 million Houston commercialization grant.
The seven grants were part of $114 million in cancer-fighting funding announced Thursday by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, including more than $50 million for the recruitment of 20 cancer researchers to Texas institutions. If the offers are accepted, Texas would gain junior and senior investigators from such institutions as Harvard, Columbia, MIT and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
In their first meeting since concerns about the agency’s grant review process surfaced in March, CPRIT officials made little mention of the controversy, focusing instead on the usual business of doling out funding.
“We’ve learned from the one job whose procedures were handled messily and are moving forward,” Jimmy Mansour, the board chairman, said after the meeting in response to questions about the controversy. “I don’t have anything to add to that.”
The grant proposals have been a source of embarrassment for CPRIT since May, when its chief scientific adviser, Nobel Laureate Al Gilman, unexpectedly announced his resignation.
Gilman cited the hasty approval of the Houston commercialization grant, a joint award to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Rice University that was the largest in CPRIT’s history. He also criticized the decision not to bring before the board, at the same meeting, seven glowingly reviewed multi-investigator research grant applications.
Gilman contended the M.D. Anderson component of the Houston grant application, reviewed by a panel of experts on drug commercialization, involved research and should have been reviewed by scientists.
The Chronicle subsequently published articles, based on CPRIT emails obtained through the Texas Public Information Act, that showed people in favor of the grant ignored key staff recommendations and bypassed the usual channels.
The postponement of the multi-investigator grants has received less media attention. Gilman contended they were set aside based on an incorrect perception of bias. Five of the seven proposals are led by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Gilman’s old school.
CPRIT executive director Bill Gimson said Thursday it was just a matter of timing – had he brought the slate to the board in March, it would have consumed all of the institute’s research funding for the rest of the year. He said no doubt ever existed that the board would consider the grants.
The seven grants total $39.4 million and involve researchers at six Texas institutions, include Baylor College of Medicine, Rice and M.D. Anderson.
CPRIT on Thursday also announced the hiring of Patricia Vojack as its compliance officer, a position created in response to the concerns raised about its grant process. Vojack is the former chief of staff to incoming Health and Human Services Commissioner Kyle Janek and most recently was director of legislative affairs in the state comptroller’s office.