By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN — Freed from a nearly yearlong moratorium, Texas’ revamped $3 billion cancer agency will take another look at research grants frozen by state lawmakers before finally releasing millions in taxpayer dollars, the agency’s top executive said Thursday.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas is set to hold its first public meeting today since lawmakers this spring overhauled the troubled agency, which was wracked by a criminal investigation and questionable spending.
The meeting is a milestone following a turbulent year that led some lawmakers to openly question whether the agency, known as CPRIT, was too broken and plagued by scandal to even bother saving.
Agency leaders are now looking at today’s meeting as a fresh start. Even the relocation of CPRIT meetings to inside the Texas Capitol is symbolic of a new commitment to transparency, said Wayne Roberts, the institute’s interim executive director.
“I’m optimistic we’re going to be a regular little agency that passes out $300 million a year,” Roberts said.
CPRIT controls the nation’s second-biggest pot of cancer research dollars in the country, behind only the federal National Institutes of Health.
Gov. Rick Perry and other state leaders this week lifted a moratorium that had been in place since December.
The unusual financial lockdown followed a wave of resignations by top scientists and the disclosure that CPRIT awarded $11 million to a private startup without ever scrutinizing the merits of the project. More than $100 million in approved grants were frozen under the moratorium. Roberts said the agency will first huddle with award recipients and make sure that scope or stage of a researcher’s proposal had not changed.
Roberts said the Dallas-based company that improperly received $11 million may also still be worthy of that money.
Peloton Therapeutics was allowed to keep roughly $3 million of the grant already awarded before funding was halted.
CPRIT halted further funding after revealing Peloton’s proposal was never peer-reviewed or scrutinized before approval.
Public corruption prosecutors in Austin opened a criminal investigation into CPRIT following that revelation.
Roberts said the agency would be hesitant to give Peloton funding while the criminal investigation is ongoing.
But if that cloud is lifted and the proposal clears the agency’s new peer-review safeguards, Roberts said he would not have a problem awarding Peloton a grant.