As Director of Texas Cancer Agency Steps Down, New Chief Scientist Steps Up
The tumult continues at Texas's troubled $3 billion state cancer research agency. Yesterday, the institute's executive director, William Gimson, submitted a letter of resignation. The same day, the agency announced that it has found a new chief scientific officer to replace the Nobel laureate who resigned earlier this year in protest over the agency's peer review procedures.
Gimson, who has led the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) for the past 3 years, explains in his letter that because of the past 8 months of controversy, he has "been placed in a situation where I feel I can [no] longer be effective." He is leaving "in the hope that my fellow CPRIT workers will finally be able to get back to what is important." If the board accepts his resignation, he will stay on until 17 January, he wrote.
Newly appointed chief scientific officer Margaret Kripke, a professor emeritus of immunology at the University of Texas (UT) MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, assured reporters in a press call today that she wants to restore the "really terrific" peer review system set up by her predecessor, Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Alfred Gilman. At the same time, when she joins CPRIT in January, Kripke intends to "broaden" CPRIT's portfolio to include more translational research and studies on prevention.
Gilman announced in May that he planned to resign because of the agency's lack of scientific review of an $18 million incubator grant to MD Anderson. He was also concerned that the agency withheld funding for a set of grants mainly awarded to Gilman's former institution, UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
When Gilman left in October, so did most of CPRIT's eight-member scientific review council (one member, Richard Kolodner of the University of California, San Diego, remains) and about two dozen of its 100-some peer reviewers. Many echoed Gilman's concerns about the agency's disregard for scientific peer review.
The controversy escalated in November when The Dallas Morning News reported that several people who donated to Texas state officials had ties to companies that won CPRIT commercialization grants despite poor scientific reviews. Also last month, an audit revealed that in 2010, CPRIT made an $11 million award to a company without formally reviewing the proposal. Although CPRIT's chief commercialization officer, Jerald Cobbs, stepped down, Gimson has continued to take heat about the matter, which he says took place at time when CPRIT was still developing its review procedures.
Kripke is known as an expert on the immunology of skin cancers and a champion of women in medical science. She founded MD Anderson's immunology department and served as executive vice president and chief academic officer of the center before she retired 5 years ago. She also spent 9 years serving as one of three members of the President's Cancer Panel.
Kripke said she only learned of Gimson's letter today and found it "very disconcerting." She said she has "no first-hand knowledge" of the recent controversies but said, "I don't think people would resign frivolously, so there must be some substance to [their] concerns." She said she's agreed to join the agency because "I think the whole concept of CPRIT is just fabulous. … I think it really has the potential to put Texas on the map in terms of research. … I feel it's being beleaguered at the moment and I want to do everything I can to help."
To do that, she says, her first task will be to rebuild CPRIT's scientific review council and peer review panels. She also says that what she learned on the President's Cancer Panel motivates her to seek a "better balance" between basic and clinical research and to put more emphasis on "prevention research and less focus on trying to cure established, advanced cancers." She declined to say how CPRIT's portfolio may change, however, until she knows "what's out there."
As for commercialization grants, Kripke says CPRIT is discussing "some kind of target" for how much funding would go to product development versus research. She says "clarity" might have prevented some of CPRIT's recent problems. She also suggests the review process for commercialization grants might work better if instead of having scientific and commercialization panels review the proposals, there was a single review by a commercialization panel that included "some dedicated scientific reviewers."
Kripke also acknowledged that because of her long history with MD Anderson, her appointment may raise concerns about a "perception" of a conflict of interest. "I hope to be able to dispel that. … CPRIT is my number one priority and I hope people will see that," she said. She does not expect that the agency will disburse grants according to geographic quotas, she added.
UT Southwestern developmental biologist Luis Parada says he is "delighted" that CPRIT has named a replacement for Gilman. Although he doesn't know her personally, Kripke is "an accomplished scientist and administrator and I am sure her skills and experience are of the highest order," he says.
However, Parada remains concerned about CPRIT's ability to restore its peer review system given that CPRIT's oversight committee, some members of whom were allegedly involved in CPRIT's peer review problems, remains in place. "Scientists outside of Texas ask me: 'Why would anyone join an effort where the sources of this enormous embarrassment to Texas remain in control?' "