AUSTIN, Texas -- At least seven scientists resigned in protest this week from Texas' embattled $3 billion cancer-fighting program, claiming the agency created with the backing of the governor and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong is charting a new "politically-driven" path that puts commercial interests before science.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has awarded nearly $700 million in grants since 2009, making Texas home to the nation's biggest pot of cancer-research dollars behind only the federal National Institutes of Health. But how the state agency picks projects has fallen under intensifying scrutiny, beginning in May when its chief scientific officer resigned in protest after it approved – without scientific review – a $20 million commercialization project.
Nobel laureate Dr. Phillip Sharp was among those stepping down this week, writing in his resignation letter that the CPRI is making funding decisions that carry a "suspicion of favoritism" in how the state is handing out taxpayer dollars. Dr. Bryan Dynlacht, another reviewer who's leaving, warned that the agency was headed down a path of systematic abuses.
"You may find that it was not worth subverting the entire scientific enterprise – and my understanding was that the intended goal of CPRIT was to fund the best cancer research in Texas – on account of this ostensibly new, politically driven, commercialization-based mission," Dynlacht wrote in his letter.
Commercialization projects focus on turning research into drugs or other sellable products rather than funding the research itself.
The letters were obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request. Sharp is professor at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while Dynlacht is at the New York University School of Medicine.
In a statement, CPRIT executive director Bill Gimson called the accusations false and misinformed.
CPRIT was created though an ambitious bond measure approved by Texas voters in 2007. The agency has scientists across the country who help review proposals and choose projects to fund.
In May, chief scientific officer Dr. Alfred Gilman resigned in protest after the CPRIT approved a $20 million grant for a so-called incubator project at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The Nobel laureate told colleagues in heated emails that he was trying to prevent misuse of taxpayer dollars and funding decisions based on political considerations.
It was the largest amount of money the agency ever awarded for a single project. But since it was a commercialization project, it didn't undergo scientific review. The agency has since said the project would undergo such a review.
The latest resignations come on the eve of potentially significant changes in how the agency allocates funding. CPRIT has been steering 75 percent of all funding toward research, 15 percent toward commercialization, and 10 percent toward prevention efforts such as breast cancer screenings.
Those funding formulas could change at the agency's annual conference this month. Gimson has signaled that the time has come to put more money into private commercialization projects, saying that would get new drugs into the hands of patients quicker.
Dr. William Kaelin of Harvard Medical School, who served on CPRIT's scientific review council before he stepped down this week, said in his resignation letter that he recently learned two fellow reviewers who rejected the science behind two proposed commercialization projects were asked by state officials to reconsider their low marks. The letter neither cited the reviewers nor the officials.
"In this environment, I am not confident that scientific quality and rigor will triumph over grandiose promised and hucksterism," Kaelin wrote.
Gimson said the final decision on whether to revise scores still rests with each reviewer.
In his statement, Gimson said he wasn't surprised by the latest resignations given Gilman's departure, though he didn't elaborate. A successor has not yet been named.