Cancer agency needs an infusion of credibility

Posted Thursday, Apr. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Texas voters don't always scrutinize proposed amendments to the state constitution as well as they should, but it's fair to assume that many of those who in 2007 approved spending $3 billion in bond proceeds over 10 years for cancer research and prevention really wanted to tackle the disease.

It's also fair to wonder whether opportunists and inept managers have now damaged the state's constitutionally created cancer-fighting agency too deeply for it to continue.

The Texas Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved SB149 and 150, measures by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, that aim to restore public confidence in the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas by making it more accountable.

CPRIT had the potential to do enormous good. Since 2010, it has awarded almost 500 grants, putting $836 million into cancer research and preventive screening. The amount of cancer research money the agency oversees is second only to the National Institutes of Health.

But the agency also has had mounting credibility problems because of dubious financial practices and apparent conflicts of interest.

A state auditor found that three grants totaling $56 million had been awarded without proper review.

Many of the scientists who had reviewed grant applications left, with a key officer claiming that political ties rather than science were guiding selection of grantees.

Some grant winners appeared to be connected to individuals who donated to a separate foundation that raised money to supplement CPRIT executives' salaries and otherwise support the agency.

The Travis County district attorney's office started investigating the actions of officials who've now left CPRIT.

Nelson's bills are designed to tighten internal controls and prevent CPRIT staff and oversight committee members from having business ties to grantees.

Before legislators appropriate more funds for CPRIT, they should be assured -- and assure the public -- that its state dollars are serving their intended purpose, not enriching the wealthy and well-connected.

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