More Controversy Over $20 Million Texas Cancer Incubator

Ronald DePinho

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

The controversy over a $20 million incubator grant made in March by the $3 billion Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to two Texas universities continues to reverberate. This week, the president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center responded publicly to the uproar, and the press raised new questions about how the grant was submitted and reviewed.

As we reported last week, up to $18 million of the grant is going to a drug discovery center co-led by Lynda Chin, wife of MD Anderson President Ron DePinho. The rest will fund a commercialization center at Rice University. On 8 May, CPRIT's chief scientific officer, Nobelist Alfred Gilman, announced he's resigning in part because other CPRIT leaders decided that the MD Anderson portion (proposal and appendix) didn't involve research and did not need to go through scientific review. CPRIT's scientific review council members wrote the CPRIT board to say that they shared Gilman's concerns.

New this week:

  • The Houston Chronicle reported that two members of CPRIT's commercialization review council had ties to Rice. One is listed on the Rice proposal as a "distinguished member" and another is on its "strategic investment committee." CPRIT responded to the suggestion of conflicts of interest in a letter to its investigators, saying neither member participated in the review of the proposal.
  • The Houston Chronicle published responses from DePinho and CPRIT Executive DirectorWillam Gimson to an editorial it wrote raising questions about the award. In DePinho's letter, he repeats the argument that the decision about how to review the grant came down to a difference of opinion about the aims of the Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS). From his letter:

IACS is a game-changer - not a traditional research undertaking - that provides a robust pipeline for successful drug development. ...

M.D. Anderson and Rice applied for the grant based on a request for proposals issued by CPRIT. Our final proposal presented a solid business strategy to enhance drug development and new company formation. The proposal received four outstanding reviews from knowledgeable individuals outside Texas. Because it is not a research project, no in-depth science was included. ...

[The] IACS is a new hybrid model that blends the best features of academia and industry into a cohesive organization. With its industry-seasoned professional staff numbering 56, the IACS conducts rigorous, goal-oriented, milestone-driven activities with sufficient resources allocated toward programs with the highest degree of long-term success in the clinic.

Some may choose to call our proposal "research." We call it business, and we are confident Texans will be the beneficiaries.

  • The Cancer Letter, a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter, reported today that the grant submission did not go through the office of MD Anderson provost Raymond DuBois before it was submitted to CPRIT (subscription only but excerpts here). The newsletter suggests that this is "unusual" because IACS's plans include animal studies and early-stage clinical trials, and because Chin works for DePinho, the newsletter writes:

Bypassing review by a provost of the institution that employs the researcher seeking funds is highly unusual and problematic-especially when medical research is involved, and more so in situations where there is a potential for conflicts stemming from nepotism, experts in ethics and grant review say.