CPRIT Leaders Defend $20 Million Incubator Grant

Leaders of Texas's $3 billion cancer research fund yesterday defended their controversial decision in March to award a $20 million "incubator" grant to Rice University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

As detailed in a news story in Science magazine today, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) has earmarked up to $18 million of the 1-year incubator grant for a drug discovery center at MD Anderson whose scientific director is Lynda Chin, wife of MD Anderson's new president, Ronald DePinho. On 8 May, Alfred Gilman, CPRIT's chief scientific officer, announced he plans to resign in the fall and cited concerns that the incubator grant proposal had not gone through scientific peer review. CPRIT officials have said that is because the proposal focused on commercialization, not scientific research.

Earlier this week, CPRIT's eight-member scientific review council, headed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist and Nobel Prize-winner Phillip Sharp, wrote to CPRIT's oversight committee to say that they share Gilman's concerns about the incubator grant. The six-and-a-half-page incubator proposal submitted by MD Anderson's Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS) describes activities such as "target biology and small molecule discovery efforts … [ that] we would characterize ... as research," the letter notes. The council has reviewed many research grants with similar goals, the letter says, and "this by-pass is inherently unfair to every scientist in Texas who participates in the CPRIT program."

In a telephone conference with reporters yesterday, CPRIT Executive Director William Gimson maintained that IACS "is not a research program. That's been clearly stated to me by the principals at IACS." The chair of CPRIT's commercialization review committee, Robert Ulrich, also discussed the fact that the MD Anderson applicants—whose proposal was submitted, reviewed, and approved over 18 days—did not give an in-person presentation to reviewers, as is usually done with commercialization proposals. In this case, Ulrich said, "there was sufficient information in the documentation that was submitted that … our reviewers were comfortable with moving forward."

Gimson added that there is "an internal question" at CPRIT about "the process" by which the incubator grant was made, and he plans to gather input on it. "It's in my best interests to make sure that this process is absolutely crystal clear in the future," he said.