Future of UTSA research donor uncertain amid controversy


The Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) has found itself in a series of scandals that have resulted in new regulations making their way through the Texas Legislature, and the Institute’s future remains unclear as the Legislature has not yet approved a bill to fund the institute past this year.
Notably, UTSA was required to make the areas around facilities that house CPRIT research smoke-free; these requirements apply to the Biotechnology, Sciences and Engineering Building and Applied Engineering and Technology Building at the UTSA Main Campus and Monterrey Building at the Downtown Campus.
CPRIT was created in 2007 when Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment that allocated $3 billion in bonds over 10 years to support cancer research. As a result, CPRIT is the second largest benefactor of cancer research in the country, behind only the National Cancer Institute.
CPRIT currently provides $900,000 of research grants to UTSA. The smoke-free areas around these buildings were the university’s first step toward making UTSA a smoke-free campus, a goal that administrators hope to achieve by June 2014.
The cancer research organization has been accused of ignoring several conflicts of interests, mismanaging funds allocated to it by the Legislature and hiring a tobacco lobbyist to represent the organization’s interests.
Among the CPRIT research projects at UTSA are a noninvasive imaging system to detect melanoma and a system to deliver toxic iron to cancer cells.
In spite of its large budget and influence, there are very few results to show for CPRIT’s efforts thus far, said James Grey of the American Cancer Society in Texas.
“You can bring something through a clinical trial process and what you have learned is how to make this drug better,” Grey told KUT. “So it actually goes through the clinical trial process all over again and provides even greater benefit. And so it takes—for some drugs, some therapies—decades.”
Although medical research does not yield significant results for many years, CPRIT has already begun to make notable strides in cancer prevention. For example, it awarded a $1.6 million grant to health organizations in the panhandle.
“We increased our educational outreach by 66 percent over a three year period,” said Leticia Goodrich of the Amarillo Area Breast Health Coalition, one of the groups who benefited from the grant, according to KUT News. “We were able to increase our percentage of mammograms by 400 percent.”
Although voters approved the founding of CPRIT to fund billions of dollars of research, the financing of salaries for administrators and scientists was not agreed upon. To help solve this issue, the Legislature created the CPRIT Foundation in 2009. The foundation, a separate entity from the institute, was essentially a private, nonprofit organization whose purpose was to solicit donations for the institute’s staff. The ultimate goal of this was to ensure that Texas was recruiting the field’s top talent.
“It was an agreement that all but guaranteed questions about conflicts of interest would arise,” reported the Austin American-Statesman. “There were no rules prohibiting the political appointees who sit on CPRIT’s oversight committee, which serves as the agency’s governing board, from also serving on the foundation’s board. There was no demand that the Foundation follow state disclosure laws.”
CPRIT leaders were called before the Senate Finance Committee in February after state auditors discovered that there were conflicts of interest between the foundation, the institute and donors to the foundation.
Additionally, they also discovered that CPRIT had not held all of its grants to the same standard. Normally, grant applicants are subject to a peer review process to ensure that each grant is awarded to a recipient with scientific merit. However, three grants worth a total of $56.3 million did not meet this requirement, leading to accusations of mismanagement by the Senate panel. One of the recipients of these grants was a group funded in part by Peter O’Donnell, who was also the largest donor to the CPRIT Foundation.
The state audit also discovered that no one at the institution was responsible for ensuring that the grants met this peer review criteria.
“My concern is that the oversight committee has failed to function properly and people in key management positions have either willingly or knowingly or with wanton disregard just bypassed the safeguards that were put in place, “ said Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), the finance committee’s chairman.
The Houston Chronicle reported that, of the Foundation’s $1 million budget, over $340,000 went toward administrative fees, a much higher percentage than what a typical nonprofit spends.
“The expenses included a $309,500 retainer to the JHL Company, the consulting firm of Jennifer Stevens, the foundation’s executive director,” the Texas Tribune reported. “Until 2011, Stevens also worked for TexasOne, a nonprofit based in Gov. Rick Perry’s office that has raised money to support the governor’s travel expenses.”
Adding to their long list of grievances, the Austin American-Statesman reported that members of the foundation board were also overseeing the cancer agency, calling the arrangement ”the most obvious of the of the cozy arrangements plaguing the agency and foundation.”
“That seems to be the story of the CPRIT Foundation,” said Rep. Trey Martinez Fisher (D-San Antonio). “It’s just one conflict of interest after another.”
The Travis County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the alleged criminal actions of former CPRIT employees.
In light of these controversies, the institute’s chief scientific officer—a Nobel Laureate—and executive director have both resigned, as well as many other staff members who worked for the Foundation and Institute. Additionally, the CPRIT Foundation has rebranded itself as the Texas Cancer Coalition, a decision that a spokesman said would allow it to “broaden its mission and reorganize its board,” according to the Texas Tribune. However, this was not approved by the state. The coalition also “voted to end the practice of supplementing salaries of the institute’s executives.”
“The organization learned important lessons from these administrative missteps, and it can emerge stronger,” said John Mendelsohn, former president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, in an editorial in the San Antonio Express-News. “The new CPRIT leadership has taken important steps to restore public and legislative confidence by implementing new procedures and safeguards.
The Texas Senate has already approved a measure that would allow for more regulation of CPRIT. “It establishes an ironclad system of checks and balances that will make it impossible for the institute to operate without 100 percent transparency and accountability,” said Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Denton), who authored the legislation.
While CPRIT still has $10.3 million remaining in the 2012-13 biennium budget, the Legislature has not yet approved any funding for 2014-15. If the Legislature does not approve more spending for CPRIT it would mean entities like UTSA would lose a potential source of research funding. The Legislature can approve a maximum of $600 million for CPRIT, according to KUT.
“I hope that our legislators reactivate CPRIT so it can continue its mission to make Texas an even greater world-class center for cancer prevention, care and research,” said Mendelsohn. “Saving CPRIT means saving lives, both now and in the future.”