The Story of CPRIT, Part 2: A Problematic Grant

The grant that upset Dr. Gilman so much that he chose to resign was an award of $22 million dollars for one year.

The award had been presented to the Oversight Committeee and approved without going through any scientific review. It was a combination award to Rice and to an organization, IACS (Institute for Applied Cancer Science), associated with Lynda Chin, a scientist and wife of the president of M.D. Anderson, Ronald DePinho. Remarkably, the IACS portion of the award had not been reviewed by the provost of either Rice or M.D. Anderson, and after reaching CPRIT, it was rushed through the CPRIT approval process in a very short timeframe in March 2012, and not at all in the regular way of electronic submission and a review process mentioned in yesterday’s post.

Apparently, this had been in the works for some time. CPRIT memos show discussion of this between Jerry Cobbs, the Chief Commercialization Officer, and the IACS people as early as January. And Charles Sherr, a member of the Scientific Review Council, recounted in a May email that he had run into DePinho in October at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Over cocktails, I ran into Ron who immediately told me that he was in direct touch with ‘the higher-ups’ who run CPRIT and that the program and Al would soon be under pressure to change the current approach. . . . [I suggested] he might speak directly to Al. Well appreciating Ron’s malignant ambition . . . , I was not blind-sided later by the proposal to mount ‘a Lynda Chin Institute’ under the auspices of Ron and MDACC. It is  my firm belief that Ron has played a direct and important role in helping to orchestrate what is, in effect, a coup d’etat.

Dr. Gilman, on the other hand, was very much blindsided.
A week before the Oversight Committee meeting, I learned essentially by accident that CPRIT was to make an $18M aware to Lynda Chin to fund the Institute for Applied Cancer Science. The proposal on which this was based was less than 7 pages, was submitted via the back door on March 11, and was presented to the Oversight Committee for funding less than two weeks later.

When he discovered it, he was extremely angry.  Bill Gimson, the executive director of CPRIT, wrote to a member of the Oversight Committee:
Al is very, very upset that the Lynda Chin operation at MD Anderson is coming in as an incubator – he feels that she did that to avoid the research peer review and that it is not an incubator because it is research.

Earlier, Dr. Gilman had bought off on approving a $4 million grant for an incubator sponsored by Rice University, one pushed heavily by Charles Tate, a venture capitalist and commercialization advocate appointed to CPRIT’s Oversight Committee by Dewhurst (Tate had made campaign contributions amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars to Dewhurst). The incubator was to be allowed to chose promising projects without the usual scientific oversight. (My personal thought is that this was possibly a tactical error on Gilman's part that he agreed to it, as this project was designed to be the "foot in the door" for enabling many future projects to evade the regular process of scientific review, judging by the fact that it was later described by a proponent as a commitment "to run a separate line aimed at commercialization that did not rest on scientific review.") Now, the IACS’s short proposal was joined with the Rice incubator project and the grant amount vastly increased under the rubric of describing the whole thing as appropriate for an “incubator.” As Gilman angrily wrote:
An award of $18 million for a research proposal without a research review – based on the administrative act of bolting it to an incubator proposal and the claim that this is an appropriate award for an incubator – is amazingly transparent. Deny it all you want, everyone who has looked at the proposal realizes that it is a joke. Everyone will also wonder why they cannot submit a seven page general description of a modus operandi, free of detail, and receive a multi-million dollar award if they simply say, ‘I hope to commercialize something, sometime.’

In addition, plans going forward by those who wanted to remold CPRIT were for commercialization projects to take around half of remaining monies after administration costs and a statutorily-designated 10% for cancer prevention research and activities. This was very different from what had occurred up to that point. The bulk of over the $700 million already awarded had gone to research. Matt Winkler, a member of CPRIT’s Scientific and Prevention Advisory Council, stated blandly:
We should really get out of the business of copying what the NIH does.
Joined with the idea that many “translational” projects should NOT be subject to scientific review, this was too much for Dr. Gilman – and ultimately for many others – to swallow.

Not science but business was the new order of the day at CPRIT, as its leaders made clear when the news of Dr. Gilman’s resignation was leaked to the press. Bill Gimson, the CPRIT Executive Director, defended CPRIT's increased emphasis on commercialization, stating in June:
We're going to reinvent ourselves on a regular basis.
As to the celerity with which the grant was approved, he said:
We did indeed move quickly with the review of the collaboration between Rice and MD Anderson, just as we have fast tracked other very exciting and potentially lifesaving commercial ventures and research recruitment awards – which can be approved in as little as a couple of weeks.
 Dr. DePinho wrote the Houston Chronicle to contend that: 
ACS is a game-changer - not a traditional research undertaking - that provides a robust pipeline for successful drug development. ... Because it is not a research project, no in-depth science was included. ... With its industry-seasoned professional staff numbering 56, the IACS conducts rigorous, goal-oriented, milestone-driven activities …Some may choose to call our proposal ‘research.’ We call it business, and we are confident Texans will be the beneficiaries. ... The current output of the IACS pipeline will prove its commercial impact in the near future.