CPRIT: Who’s Accountable?

By

Leonard Zwelling

         About 20 years ago, a series of research grants were made available
through the state of Texas and the competition for the money was fierce. I
cannot even remember what the program was called, but we on the faculty called
it the Texas State Lottery. It was never clear why those who were successful
getting the money were successful or what a metric of success of the program
even was. I doubt there was ever a real accounting of these expenditures or of
the putative benefit of these grants other than to the recipients.

         CPRIT (The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas) seems to be reinventing the wheel.

         Of course, it was bad enough, although not surprising, that
a $3 billion program in Texas would be rife with corruption within three years
of its onset, but today we read of further allocations of millions of dollars
to recruit talent to Texas, part of the CPRIT program that has also been going
on for years. Is it working? What does “working” look like?

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/MD-Anderson-Baylor-receive-massive-grants-6843832.php

         Todd Ackerman reports in today’s Chronicle about huge grants to recruit scientific talent to Texas.
That’s great. Could the A-Rod of biochemistry be far behind? How will we know
if these investments have paid off and what does pay off look like?

         I suppose if one of these recruits wins the Nobel Prize,
that’s a pretty good payoff and that may well occur with Dr. Allison in the
fall, but he made his seminal discoveries without CPRIT money so it will be
difficult to attribute anything that occurs following his Nobel Prize, should
that occur, to the investment made in him beyond the fact that he received the
phone call from Sweden in Houston—if he is in town that day.

But
the real payoff of CPRIT is far easier to measure. Jobs, companies and
earth-changing scientific findings. When I testified in favor of CPRIT before
the Legislature sitting right next to Lance Armstrong, it was obvious that both
the benefits to cancer research in new discoveries and to the people of Texas
in the downstream effects of commercializing those discoveries were the intent
of the elected representatives and certainly of the electorate that passed the
initiative that funded CPRIT. How much of that has occurred to date? I don’t
mean another paper in Cell. I mean a
real discovery that helps patients with cancer or people avoid the disease or
new jobs or tax revenue for the people of Texas.

         But there was never a need to wait for these tangible
benefits of CPRIT. Instead of investing $6 million in a new structural
biologist or $2 million in a post-doc, the benefits of whose work is at least
10 years away, how about starting a screening program for colon cancer so that
no one in Houston dies of this preventable disease. I think $8 million could
make a real, quantifiable impact on cancer deaths in the city, don’t you? Or,
we could vaccinate every young person in the city who wishes to be vaccinated
against HPV. Or we could invest in more mammograms for all the women in Houston
so we can curtail the rate of breast cancer deaths in the nation’s 4th
largest city. New supermarkets with fresh produce in all areas of the city and
programs on eating, cooking and exercising in the schools could also be funded
with CPRIT money. I assume some are, but an additional $8 million would go a long way
further.

         Not only would such prevention expenditures provide readily
quantifiable benefits, they would hasten the day that MD Anderson got back to
doing what it does best, care for the ill instead of trying to be the Ivy
League in a city where ivy grows poorly. All the money in the world is not
going to turn 1515 Holcombe into Harvard and, by the way, all that money
wouldn’t turn Harvard into what MD Anderson used to be or used to mean to the
world of cancer, but no longer is or does.

         I just want to know when someone is going to hold CPRIT
accountable for a demonstration of what the $3 billion got the taxpayers of
Texas for their investment and why that investment wasn’t made in activities
with a far higher likelihood of a positive return on the investment (how about
a sure thing!), like prevention or great science with an impact on Texans.

         I have read enough stories in The Cancer Letter about the corruption that characterized CPRIT’s
initial years. I have written enough about it as well. Do I have to write more
about the misuse of these funds in lieu
of what could be an immediate benefit to the people of Houston and of Texas?

         I
guess so.

Leonard Zwelling