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The Cancer Letter Inc.
P.O. Box 9905
Washington, D.C. 20016
publication date: Oct 15, 2012
Sometimes people follow through on their warnings.
Scientists who review proposals for the Cancer Prevention and Research
Institute of Texas said last spring that they would follow their chief scientific
officer, Alfred Gilman, out the door.
And they did.
Seven of the eight members of the CPRIT scientific review council said
they would leave, and the eighth is expected to quit as well, ending their
association with the Texas state agency that dispenses $300 million a year
for cancer research and commercialization.
The scientists submitted blistering letters explaining their decisions to leave.
“This past spring, the peer review system of CPRIT was dishonored by actions
of CPRIT’s administration when a set of grants were delayed in funding because of
suspicion of favoritism,” writes Phillip Sharp, chair of the council. “Further, a proposal
based on science similar to that previously reviewed by the CPRIT council was selected
for funding using other criteria. These events ultimately led to the resignation of Dr.
Gilman. The same events motivate my decision to resign now.”
Both Gilman and Sharp are Nobel laureates.
The walkout—and, perhaps more so, the letters—send a powerful signal that
CPRIT is now outside mainstream cancer science. The controversy—and the instance
of “favoritism” alleged by Sharp—began when the state agency funded an $18 million
project spearheaded by Lynda Chin, an MD Anderson scientist and the wife of that
Documents obtained by The Cancer Letter show that the decision to fund the
grants was the result of CPRIT’s shift toward commercialization (The Cancer Letter,
In his letter of resignation, William Kaelin, a member of the scientific review council,
draws a connection between MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program and CPRIT’s funding
“The recent posting on the CPRIT website (http://www.cprit.state.tx.us/news/
cprit-applauds-md-anderson-moon-shots-initiative) lauding the MD Anderson ‘moonshot’
initiative also creates the impression that the future ‘winners’ have already been chosen
and that there will be increased focus on perceived short-term deliverables,” Kaelin writes.
“In this environment, I am not confident that scientific quality and rigor will
triumph over grandiose promises and hucksterism.”
Scientific review council members Charles Sherr and Tyler Jacks note that they
continue to be troubled by the MD Anderson incubator.
“In my personal judgment, one of the most problematic events concerned the
proposed funding of the Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS) at the MD Anderson
Cancer Center,” Sherr writes. “Their short proposal of less than seven pages was reviewed
solely as a commercial ‘incubator’ project, but without rigorous scientific oversight by
any of the more than 100 out-of-state experts already employed by CPRIT who could
have offered informed opinions.”
“These accusations, as well as the failure to mandate scientific review of so-called
incubator grants during this period, served to undermine the careful work of my committee
and the sanctity of the larger CPRIT scientific review process,” writes Jacks. “Under the
circumstances, I feel that I have no option than to resign my position.”
Council member Sanjiv Gambhir praised Gilman for defending the peer review system:
"I want to particularly thank Dr. Gilman for taking a firm stand against the CPRIT oversight
committee for their actions that undermine the rigorous scientific review process that was
championed by Dr. Gilman," writes Gambhir. "Politics and science at times must mix, but at
other times such as this, they should clearly not."
The scientific review council members are being followed by the vast majority of rank
-and-file reviewers, about 100 cancer researchers and clinicians, all from outside Texas.
Sources say that the agency may have no scientific reviewers left.
MD Anderson officials withdrew the incubator grant, pledging to resubmit it for review
later. Yet, scientists are leaving because they have no confidence in a post-Gilman CPRIT.
This walkout is an extraordinary act of solidarity on a scale never before observed in
cancer science in the U.S. Even when former NCI director Andrew von Eschenbach was
making patently absurd statements about eliminating suffering and death due to cancer by
the year 2015, he encountered no open opposition from scientists.
CPRIT officials received their first warning six months ago (The Cancer Letter, May 25).
Yet, they were unable—or unwilling—to avert the crisis.