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Texas And Its Cancer Funding

Texas put up a lot of money a few years ago for cancer research. “A lot”, in this case, means three billion, to be awarded by the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). This is where the money came to get K. C. Nicolaou for Rice University, for example, and much other research spending besides.
But – and I know that you’ll be shocked to hear this – it turns out that the distribution of such funds can end up being tainted by politics. A number of high-profile resignations have shaken up the effort – here’s an editorial by two of the most prominent (Nobel prominent, and now former) members who talk about what’s gone wrong:

The past eight months were difficult. Controversy flared when several well-regarded, multi-investigator, multi-institutional collaborative research projects were put in the freezer for months – not brought to the Oversight Committee for funding after strong recommendation by the Scientific Review Council.
This delay was at least partially based on the concern that several of these projects came from one institution. CPRIT’s executive director has offered different and conflicting explanations for this action.
Simultaneously, an expensive “commercialization” proposal, constructed and submitted in unorthodox ways that circumvented CPRIT’s rules, was rushed to the Oversight Committee and approved for $20 million for its initial year of operations, despite the absence of description or scientific review of its drug development program. This was ultimately corrected, albeit with great effort. . .
Texans deserve to hear the truth about cancer. They must understand that miracles will not happen in a short time. Progress will not be made by those who simply proclaim without explanation that they can do better than hundreds of skillfully staffed and well-financed pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Real progress requires the concerted high-quality efforts of basic, translational and clinical investigators from the academic community collaborating with counterparts from the private sector when appropriate.

Here an example what they’re talking about. It looks like the sort of stuff you’d expect – backdoor maneuvering to bypass peer review and speed up funding. Texas should have expecting trouble like this; there’s no way that a pot of money this size could be distributed without grief. That would be true even if everything had gone smoothly – people outside research are often amazed when they realize the sums of money that can be thrown at these problems, sometimes to little visible effect. The history of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), a state-funded stem cell research effort, is instructive here – they haven’t quite had the controversies that Texas has, but the voters of California may well have expected more by now than they’ve feel they’ve received, which is a side effect of stem-cell hype. Add in some favoritism and fast dealing, and you have a real recipe for trouble.

14 comments on “Texas And Its Cancer Funding”

  1. SP says:

    I find it frustrating that if Texas had better environmental regulations, they could probably prevent a significant number of cancer cases. But you get more fanfare by being “free market”- maintaining the right of corporations to pollute the commons- followed by spending billions to solve a bunch of the problems you just caused.
    Similar things happen in other industries- take the Kochs (please!)- they throw millions of dollars at cancer research, which is great, but if they hadn’t lobbied so strongly against better regulation of things at companies they run, like formaldehyde or mining waste, they could have prevented a lot more cases of cancer than their funding will end up curing.

  2. imatter says:

    Is the money coming from the State of Texas? It’s a little confusing.
    I often wonder about these arrangements which are similar to SBIR grants–the biotech and academia labs collaboration. And I am concerned about the shared project where from the same pot of money will pay postdocs doing the work for biotech company and yet not pay the postdoc in industry scale. Does this arrangement happen a lot?

  3. Luigi says:

    Interesting – “Progress will not be made by those who simply proclaim without explanation that they can do better than hundreds of skillfully staffed and well-financed pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.” – sounds so much like the proclamations routinely made by Francis Collins and his team. A cure for AD by 2025? -“piece of cake”.

  4. qetzal says:

    Yes, the money comes from the state (i.e. the state taxpayers), via $3 billion in bonds. (See
    And as an aside: SBIR grants are not necessarily biotech/academia collaborations. They must involve a small business. They may also involve an academic group, but only 1/3 of the budget can go to the academics.
    There’s a different federal grant program called STTR that does require business/academic collaboration.

  5. Bender says:

    Texas should have expecting trouble like this
    Bingo. At the end of the day, cancer research institutes care about money just as much as any company does, they just don’t answer to investors. MD Anderson being one of the largest cancer institutes in the country should have set off warnings that they would try to hoard the money for themselves. I bet the “CHA-CHING!” from DePinho’s office was audible throughout the building.

  6. MIMD says:

    CPRIT’s governing board should have sufficient expertise to do its job. Only one member of this 11-person Oversight Committee has any direct knowledge of cancer, medical practice or research.”
    I’ve written that management in biomedicine without domain knowledge is, by definition, mismanagement.

  7. anderson says:

    “But – and I know that you’ll be shocked to hear this – it turns out that the distribution of such funds can end up being tainted by politics.”
    Smooth, but the sarcasm might be lost on the casual reader.
    Politics is 80% of the funding process (akin to the tenure process- which is really about future money flows).
    So you grant tenure to the bogus/ connected individual with few creative or technical skills (a politician) and he turns around and distributes money for programs he gets his hooks into like a politician (i.e.where does my money buy the most favor?).
    Money made by real men handed off to fruity little academic children. I mean when is someone going to notice that most faculty are the effeminate spawn of the well to do? That it’s all just one big scam and that tenure is handed out like aristocratic titles to direct the flow of public resources to the other aristocrats?
    A federal law should be drafted in which all faculty are required to wear white face and a powdered wig.

  8. Edgar says:

    Texans……. cancer charity…. politics … cover ups…
    all a bit familiar.
    There is a discussion thread on a cycling forum also linking to that article unsurprisingly

  9. Luigi says:

    Based on MIMD’s comment (6) the ACA’s Independent Payment Advisory Board is a far worse case of mismanagement than the governing board at CPRIT

  10. steve says:

    There is another side to this. The CPRIT controversy is a fight between the commercialization group and the scientific review group. CPRIT has been an abysmal failure in bringing biotech companies to Texas, which is one of the stated goals of the grant process. Instead, the vast majority of the money has gone to academics. The problem is, academics never cure anything. If the bondholders (i.e., the citizens of the state) want cures then they need to fund companies that can do the work to bring them to market. The scientific review group had no idea of what constitutes drug development and turned down a number of promising companies based on purely academic considerations.

  11. Fred the Fourth says:

    This California voter is not disappointed by the CIRM. I got exactly what I expected: another bunch of California public servants getting paid to distribute tax money, fun pension obligations for the next generation of taxpayers, and negligible R&D.

  12. Sisyphus says:

    This occurred in Texas; George Bush is from Texas; therefore, blame it on GWB.
    But on a more serious note, let me try to understand that this commercialization group is using taxpayer’s money to fund private enterprise. Isn’t that exactly what the left-leaning academic community eschews? I guess greed is the great leveler.

  13. Anon says:

    I have always suspected this big grant was something DePinho M.D. and Chin M.D. were unofficially promised. My main itch is that they are paying themselves and others involved in this project wages that far exceed the average at MDACC (Chin is making 600k and Depinho well over a million). It is hard for me to see their altruism towards helping others when they make so much as base salaries and get large amounts to fund projects where they can get royalties (an opportunity this large is not afforded to other scientists). Though as a grad student maybe I am just out of touch with livable wages?

  14. Moody Blue says:

    And they have been outsourcing all the chemistry to work to China!! Talk about s(p)ending tax payers money overseas…. I guess they’re trying to get more bang for the public buck!!

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