Nobelist Steps Down as Scientific Leader of Texas Cancer Fund

Alfred Gilman

UT Southwestern

The Nobel prize-winning biochemist who has steered the scientific arm of Texas's $3-billion cancer research fund is stepping down citing concerns over the agency's funding process.

Alfred Gilman, the chief scientific officer of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), yesterday wrote to CPRIT Executive Director William Gimson to say that he plans to resign effective 12 October. In the resignation letter obtained by ScienceInsider, Gilman explained that the 3-year-old CPRIT is now well established and no longer needs him as a full-time science officer. But he also expressed concerns about the agency's peer-review system.

Texas voters 5 years ago approved a plan to fund CPRIT at $3 billion over 10 years, following a model similar to California's stem cell research agency. It has disbursed $671 million so far, mostly for basic research and clinical trials. In addition to awarding scores of grants to Texas labs, CPRIT has recruited at least two dozen scientists to the state, including several top-ranked researchers.

Gilman, who came to the agency from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, has prided himself on setting up a peer-review system made up of scientists from outside Texas and led by Phillip Sharp, a fellow Nobelist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist.

In his resignation letter, Gilman explains that CPRIT's research program "is now essentially at a steady state," his job "has become routine" and that CPRIT "no longer require[s] a full-time person." But he also alludes to problems: He writes that keeping the peer-review system "intact ... will be critically dependent on the attitudes of CPRIT leadership," especially CPRIT's oversight committee.

Further on he warns that in the oversight committee's next funding round in July, "negative decisions" about peer-reviewed grants awaiting the board's final approval "would have a fatal impact on CPRIT's peer review system" and would "be extremely harmful to the research community's view of science in Texas, and thus on the ability to recruit scientists to the state."

Gilman also has concerns about CPRIT's "incubator" commercialization program, which made its first award of $20 million to Rice University and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in March. If the board is to approve more incubator grants in July, the rules for reviewing and funding them should be "revised," the letter says. This would "prevent further award of vast funds for research programs ostensibly within incubators that were not described and therefore could not have been reviewed." .

Baylor College of Medicine human geneticist Malcolm Brenner was dismayed by the news of Gilman's resignation. "It's very disappointing because he's been a very strong and effective leader, and he's kept the review process rigorously scientific," Brenner said.

CPRIT has run into controversy before. Two years ago, the Houston Chronicle questioned why UT Southwestern had won the most CPRIT funding even though MD Anderson received far more federal funding for cancer research.

CPRIT had not yet responded to a request this afternoon for comment.

Update, 10 May: In a letter released yesterday afternoon, CPRIT Executive Director William Gimson said he had received Gilman's resignation letter. Gimson praised Gilman's service and his role in shaping CPRIT's structure and policies. "Under Al's leadership, CPRIT recruited the best review committees in the world while implementing a conflict-free system that is the cornerstone of our cancer research grant award process," the statement says. The institute plans to launch a national search for a successor.