10/26/2012 06:17 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Did Texas Cancer Research Institute Meddle With Peer Review?

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, created with $3 billion of state taxpayer money, is now facing charges that it meddled with peer review to award contracts to preferred candidates. Its chief scientific officer, Alfred G. Gilman, a Nobel laureate, resigned in protest in May, and seven other scientists followed him out the door last week, including Philip A. Sharp of MIT, another Nobel laureate. The institute was created with the support of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor. 

Until today, the story had received surprisingly little national coverage. An AP story by Paul J. Weber on Oct. 12 reported the resignations, and that Sharp wrote in his resignation letter that the institute's funding decisions carry a "suspicion of favoritism." Another scientist who resigned, Bryan Dynlacht, said a "new, politically driven, commercialization-based mission" could "subvert the entire scientific enterprise," the AP reported.

The story got some good local coverage -- more about that in a minute -- but the first substantial national story I could find was a news story in Nature today by Monya Baker. She reports that the science community was uneasy about the institute's "attempt to simultaneously support basic research and nurture companies."

"I can't think of a better example than this one of how a potential conflict of interest can undermine an institution," Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist at Emory University, tells Baker. Some of those who resigned said the institute was guilty of "hucksterism" and having "dishonored" the peer review system, Baker reports. 

Gilman's resignation, she writes, came after the institute awarded a $20-million grant to Lynda Chin at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where her husband, Ronald DePinho, is president. DePinho and M.D. Anderson were recently responsible for what I called a month ago one of the most hyped cancer stories I've seen in a long time--a "moon shots" program to cure cancer in five years. The program was based on not on a research breakthrough, but on a press release that CNN's Sanjay Gupta swallowed whole. 

Now about that local coverage: In June, Eric Berger and Todd Ackerman of the Houston Chronicle had a nice piece detailing the problems with that $20-million grant. 

It was the largest grant the institute had awarded. Chin filed a seven-page application on March 12, according to Berger and Ackerman. Just before she submitted it, an institute official encouraged her. "We'll make it work," he said. But a senior staff member protested when the application was submitted, saying he didn't think Chin and her team were "ready." By the end of March, Chin got the grant -- about $18 million for the first year. The institute "handled the grant application in a hasty manner designed to circumvent its own scientific reviewers," the Chronicle story said.

On Oct. 18, Berger wrote on his blog, SciGuy, that "most of the scientists from outside Texas who were hired to review scientific proposals also resigned during the last two weeks." In an email inadvertently sent to a wider audience than he intended, the chairman of the institute's politically appointed oversight committee wrote, "Better to get them all out of the way now."

M.D. Anderson is one of the nation's leading cancer-research institutes, and it's odd that the scandal over this grant should occur at roughly the same time that the institute was guilty of wildly overpromising a cure for cancer. Berger and Ackerman led their story with, "Lynda Chin is used to getting what she wants."

This story is crying for more attention from the science press. What else, we might ask, is going on at M.D. Anderson?

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.