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Texas leaders call for halting grants issued by cancer institute

12/19/2012 11:37 PM

12/19/2012 11:50 PM

State leaders called Wednesday for a moratorium on grants issued by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus called on the institute's board to immediately address concerns about the grant-making process raised amid investigations by the Texas attorney general and the Travis County district attorney's office.

"The mission of defeating cancer is too important to be derailed by inadequate processes and a lack of oversight," Perry, Dewhurst and Straus wrote in a letter to the board.

They asked the board to cooperate with the investigations, implement recommended changes and hire new leadership.

"It is important that we restore the confidence of the Texas taxpayers who approved this important initiative before new funds are" disbursed, they wrote.

In 2007, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment that gave lawmakers the authority to sell bonds for $3 billion over 10 years to attract cancer research and prevention projects to Texas.

The institute's future is uncertain as the Texas attorney general, Travis County district attorney and state auditor's office investigate whether officials broke the law in their distribution of grants to cancer research and commercialization projects.

Republican and Democratic leaders in the state Senate also called for major reform of the institute.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, an author of the bill that established the institute, filed legislation that would create a compliance program to ensure that the institute follows state statutes.

It would also institute new protections to prevent conflicts of interest in the grant-making process, among other reforms.

"I still believe in the mission to find cures and treatments for this terrible disease, which directly and indirectly impacts millions of Texans," Nelson said in a statement.

"For CPRIT to succeed, the public must have faith that it is operating in a fair, transparent manner and in compliance with the rules and laws we put in place to ensure accountability."

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, also urged Perry to add reforming the institute to his list of emergency items in the upcoming legislative session. She asked the governor to put an immediate moratorium on additional commercialization grants until the Legislature can act.

The investigations began after the institute's oversight committee publicly disclosed an internal report that found that an $11 million grant to Peloton Therapeutics had been approved without scientific review.

After the disclosure, the media discovered potential conflicts of interest involved with that grant.

Peloton Therapeutics was founded in 2010, just months before it received the grant, to transform research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas into cancer-fighting drugs. It started with an initial investment of $18 million, partly funded by Dallas philanthropist Peter O'Donnell.

The Dallas Morning News reported that O'Donnell, who has contributed millions to fund research at the University of Texas, has given $1.6 million since 2009 to the CPRIT Foundation, a nonprofit associated with the institute. Dr. Alfred Gilman, the former chief scientific officer at the institute, whose salary was supplemented by the CPRIT Foundation, performed research at UT Southwestern.

Gilman, who was in charge of the scientific review process, was at the oversight committee meeting when the board improperly approved the Peloton grant, but he raised no objections.

And emails allegedly exchanged by Gilman and former chief commercialization officer Jerry Cobbs cannot be found.

Gilman told the Morning News, "The bottom line is that I was never asked to review the Peloton proposal; it was never sent to me by Peloton or by CPRIT and I have never seen it."

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