(NaturalNews) A major rift has formed at the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), one of the largest publicly-funded efforts by a state government to promote conventional cancer research and drug development, after 33 scientists, including the group's chief scientific officer, suddenly resigned from their posts. According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the group's research arm has been clashing with its oversight arm over how funds are to be disbursed, with many raising qualms about increasing commercialization and profiteering taking place within the organization.
Hatched in 2007 with the goal of spending $3 billion by 2020 on cancer research and prevention, CPRIT has already doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years, primarily towards peer-reviewed research efforts that the group claims are for "preventing and curing cancer." A much smaller portion of the group's funding has typically been reserved for specific prevention efforts and commercial projects, the latter of which involve the controversial use of taxpayer dollars to fund the private development of new cancer drugs.
But in 2012, the overall amount of CPRIT funding used for such commercial projects increased dramatically, raising concerns among many of the group's foundational members about where the organization is headed in terms of its overall mission. And the CPRIT oversight committee, which is supposed to consult with scientists before making major funding decisions, has increasingly acted arbitrarily in deciding how to disburse funds, with a larger share of these disbursements getting directed towards questionable drug-development efforts rather than actual research and prevention efforts.
CPRIT leadership obstructed peer review process to play favorites, claim scientists
The straw that broke the camel's back was an $18 million grant recently awarded to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which was to be used for commercializing and rushing to market new cancer drugs. According to now-departed scientists from CPRIT, which include Nobel laureates Alfred G. Gilman, the group's chief scientific officer, and Philip A. Sharp, along with many others, key leadership at CPRIT flagrantly sidestepped the scientific peer review process in awarding the grant, as well as several others, while putting various peer-reviewed grants on the back burner.
CPRIT leadership has also been steering the organization towards a "new, politically driven, commercialization-based mission," according to one now-resigned scientist, which implies that more public money is now being given to drug companies to develop cancer drugs rather than to groups trying to prevent and cure cancer. This same scientist warned in his resignation letter that, if left unchecked, this hijacking of CPRIT by those with ill motives and shady intent has the potential to "subvert the entire scientific enterprise."
"I can't think of a better example than this one of how a potential conflict of interest can undermine an institution," Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist at Emory University, is quoted as saying to Nature about the situation.
Scientists' public call for resignation of key leadership at CPRIT to restore integrity
Though the controversial grant to M.D. Anderson was eventually withdrawn in response to voiced concerns, and the peer-reviewed grants moved through the system as they should have been from the start, the culture of respecting the peer-review process at CPRIT has continued to devolve into what some whistleblower scientists have dubbed full-blown "hucksterism." Corruption continues to take precedent over honest science, they claim, which is what eventually drove them to make the ultimate decision to depart from the group.
As far as any chance at restoring integrity to CPRIT, James M. Mansour, a Texas businessman and current chairman of the group's oversight committee, is one of the primary targets for removal, as his influence is said to be a driving force behind the group's evolving cronyism. Appointed by Texas Governor Rick "Gardasil" Perry, Mansour was exposed recently for actually celebrating the departure of the group's primary scientists, as they would no longer obstruct his plans to divvy up taxpayer dollars how he personally sees fit.
"If the institute hopes to recruit independent peer reviewers of the caliber that have just departed in droves, its leadership must change at the very highest levels. Mansour's removal is essential," said a recent Nature piece. "Such housecleaning is also the only way to begin rebuilding the trust of the Texas public, which has every right to expect that the $2 billion as yet unspent by the CPRIT be awarded through unimpeachable peer review."
Gov. Rick Perry, Lance Armstrong behind corrupt leadership at CPRIT
Gov. Perry, who continues to laud the work of Mansour at CPRIT -- Mansour has donated at least $55,000 to Perry's gubernatorial campaigns since 2005, after all -- was one of the primary drivers behind the passage of the legislation in Texas that created CPRIT back in 2007. The now-shamed former cyclist Lance Armstrong also led the push to establish CPRIT, which outside commentators and politicians are now saying was flawed from the start.
"It was like somebody didn't know how to write the creation of a state agency, but they did anyway," said Garnet Coleman, a member of the Texas House of Representatives, in a recent statement. According to Coleman, the legislation to establish CPRIT, which was pushed heavily by both Gov. Perry and Armstrong, lacked proper internal safeguards and oversight by the legislature, which suggests that it was almost designed with corruption in mind. "We need to take the rules, fix them and put them in a statute," he added, noting that he plans to introduce a new measure to amend the flawed agency next year.