Head of state cancer agency would lose power under bill that overhauls the institute

By JAMES DREW Staff Writer Published: 01 May 2013 08:38 PM

AUSTIN — The head of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas would lose power under a bill that overhauls how the agency operates, a key legislator testified Wednesday.

Since CPRIT’s creation, its executive director has had the final say on which recommendations — from scientists and business experts who review grant applications — should go to the agency’s oversight committee for action.

Under a bill that the Senate approved last month, that decision making would be spread across a five-member committee, Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, told a House committee. It would consist of four CPRIT officials, including the executive director, and the commissioner of state health services.

Keffer said legislators who crafted the legislation felt the executive director had too much power. Bill Gimson held that post until he resigned in December, shortly after some oversight committee members criticized him for not promptly informing them about a flawed 2010 grant to a Dallas-based biotechnology start-up.

“We have tried to divide it up to a bigger, wise council,” said Keffer, who is carrying the bill sponsored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Keffer outlined the reform bill to the House Public Health Committee, as several cancer prevention, research and treatment advocates — some wearing red, white and blue “Save CPRIT, Save Lives” buttons — urged legislators to vote yes.

The Dallas-based Bridge Breast Network used a $977,603 CPRIT grant aimed at preventing breast cancer to boost the number of uninsured women it served in North Texas from 520 to 2,600 per month, said executive director Terry Wilson-Gray.

But the grant awarded in 2011 ended earlier this year. It could not be renewed because of the moratorium on CPRIT grants announced last December by the state’s political leadership, Wilson-Gray said.

Texas voted in 2007 to establish CPRIT and allow it to fund up to $3 billion over 10 years for cancer research and prevention programs.

Since October, three high-ranking officials have resigned as the agency scrapped a $20 million grant to a Houston business incubator. The agency also halted funds toward an $11 million award given to Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics — an award that did not receive the required business or scientific review.

A report by state auditor John Keel also found several flaws in a $25 million grant that CPRIT awarded in 2010 to create a statewide network to move cancer treatments rapidly from laboratories to patients.

The committee chairwoman, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she expects the panel to vote on the bill by the middle of next week. It then would move to the full House.

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