News

Dozens of scientists quit Texas cancer agency review panels, claiming that business interests trumped merit

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e7267 (Published 29 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7267
  1. Keith Epstein
  1. 1Washington, DC

A publicly financed $3bn (£1.9bn; €2.3bn) effort to spur innovative cancer research, reduce cancer rates, and speed up the commercialization of new treatments has floundered amid controversy after the mass resignation of nearly three dozen scientists, including two Nobel laureates, from review committees.

The scientists were peer reviewers for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), who considered whether proposals deserved to be funded with taxpayers’ money. They complained that grants were being awarded on the basis of politics and business development ambitions rather than scientific merit.

Texas created the agency in 2007 after efforts by the cancer survivor and cyclist Lance Armstrong and the state’s governor, Rick Perry, to gain voters’ approval to finance a state run agency to fight cancer.

The agency has handed out more than 420 grants worth some $700m, the second largest source of government funding for cancer research after the National Institutes of Health, a federally funded institute that is facing limitations on funding.

Many experts viewed the agency as a prototype for establishing new sources of funding and nurturing start-up companies to accelerate the delivery of anticancer drugs.

Eileen White, one of the peer reviewers and a molecular biologist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, wrote in a letter resigning from the organization’s basic science research committee: “It was my hope that CPRIT would serve as a model for funding cancer research in other states. Sadly, due to recent events, that does not appear likely.”

Armstrong, whose own image has suffered after revelations of use of systemic performance enhancing drugs during his participation in the Tour de France,1 had urged Texas voters and lawmakers to back $3bn in bonds so that CPRIT could drive “cutting-edge research and innovative cancer screening and prevention.” Armstrong wrote in one appeal, “You have the power to save thousands of lives and millions of taxpayer dollars” (http://signon.livestrong.org/texas).

Now, amid disclosures in the press in Texas and questions in the state legislature, the institute’s $300m in annual state funding, appropriated by the legislature every two years, may be in jeopardy.

Greg Longmore, a cell biologist at Washington University in St Louis, said in his resignation letter, “Events of the past few months have tarnished what was at the outset a wonderful program.”

In a statement the agency said that it stood by the integrity of its peer review process and is making improvements.2

Troubles first surfaced publicly in May with the resignation of Alfred Gilman, the institute’s chief scientific officer, over a $20m award for a project involving Rice University and the Houston based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, a leading research institute, without a full scientific review. The proposal was less than seven pages. Gilman, a winner of a 1994 Nobel prize for breakthroughs in cell communication, complained that the normal approval process had been circumvented and that the project had been approved in a few weeks despite the objections of reviewers.

Other applications with strong backing from reviewers were set aside. Monica Bertagnolli, a surgical oncologist at Harvard Medical School, wrote when resigning from a review panel that she found it “outrageous . . . that many detailed applications so painstakingly prepared by Texas researchers were reviewed and approved for funding in good faith, only to have this review negated by diverting funding to a briefly outlined ‘commercialization’ proposal from MD Anderson/Rice.”

A sizable portion of the $20m grant—for a commercial “incubator” that would nurture entrepreneurial efforts at drug development—was designated for a group led by Lynda Chin, a scientific director at MD Anderson who has founded cancer diagnostics and biotechnology companies. Chin’s husband, Ronald DePinho, is MD Anderson’s president.

Meanwhile, applications for grants by scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, which received backing from the out of state peer reviewers, were not selected. There was criticism from the scientific community that grant criteria had been tailored in a way that benefited Chin’s eligibility.3 Since the controversy became public, the MD Anderson grant has been withdrawn and the competing grants have been approved.

Members of all but one of the institute’s eight external review panels have resigned. William Kaelin, a professor at Harvard Medical School, said in his resignation letter: “I am not confident that scientific quality and rigor will triumph over grandiose promises and hucksterism.” The head of the institute’s scientific review council, the 1993 Nobel laureate Phillip Allen Sharp, a geneticist who co-discovered RNA splicing, complained about a “suspicion of favoritism.”

Texas officials seem determined to put the controversy behind them and to restore the agency’s reputation. William Gimson, the institute’s executive director, said that researchers’ concerns were being met. “We learn from experience,” he wrote to reviewers who resigned. “What I’ve learned is that we cannot let one event destroy the hope that millions of cancer patients and survivors around Texas have placed in us.”

An annual meeting in October that involved nearly 900 scientists, stakeholders, and state officials focused on research and on vows by state officials that the institute would recover from the bad publicity and flourish (www.cprit2012.org).

In a keynote speech on 24 October, Brian Druker, an oncologist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute whose studies helped lead to imatinib as a treatment of choice for chronic myeloid leukemia,4 predicted that the institute would recover and make a big impact but that it might be a challenge to persuade scientists from outside Texas to take the place of the reviewers who have resigned.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7267

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