In an attempt to shore up both the reputation and functionality of the nations's largest state-funded cancer agency, officials at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) just announced the appointment of Dr. Margaret Kripke as the agency's new chief scientific officer. The embattled agency has faced accusations from many of its key scientists that irregularities and favoritism in the funding process have undermined their scientific credibility and put commercialization above research.
Last month we did a recap of the Texas-sized debacle, which you can read in our blog archive here. Since that time a further instance of a major commercial grant being approved and doled out without proper review (indeed without any review, it seems) has been in the press, with private biotech company Peloton Therapeutics under the microscope. CPRIT chairman Jimmy Mansour has ordered that an audit be requested to see if any links between Peloton and CPRIT members exists to suggest a personal profit motive for the grant (which has since been suspended pending investigation).
[Photo of Dr. Kripke courtesy of CPRIT, via Nature News Blog]
The hiring of Dr. Kripke is a very good move by the Texas cancer fund agency and signals a renewed commitment to their research mission. Kripke is a respected immunologist with strong administrative experience. She retired in 2007 from UT's MD Anderson Cancer Center where she was the executive vice president and chief academic officer. While there, she founded the Department of Immunology and was also a professor of immunology. She recently completed a nine-year term on the three-person President’s Cancer Panel. MD Anderson honored her further by naming an award after her: the Kripke Legend Award, given out annually to a member of the academic biomedical community who has advanced the role of women in science.
Kripke comes on board in January and will be responsible for overseeing CPRIT's Research portfolio. CPRIT also supports preventative cancer initiatives and commercialization ventures aimed at getting therapeutics to patients as well advancing Texas' biotech economy. In a press release announcing Dr. Kripke's successful recruitment, the agency underscored that CPRIT’s Research portfolio has funded the majority of the Institute’s $300 million in annual grant awards, which is to say it is their primary mission. Though preventative and commercial grant applications are overseen by other CPRIT administrators, they must be reviewed by scientists on their advisory board to assure their scientific merit. This is where the trouble arose earlier this year, leading to the resignation of the former chief scientific officer, Nobel Prize laureate Alfred Gilman, along with many of his colleagues.
One of Dr. Kripke's first tasks will be to fill the empty positions on the scientific advisory board with respected researchers. To do that she'll have to convince them that complaints made by former advisors have been resolved and that CPRIT will always look to its scientists (rather than its business directors) to assess the merit of awards. She will, in other words, need to reestablish the agency's credibility so that they can get on with the business of funding cancer research. Since Texas voters authorized $3B over a 10-year period to support the state's fight against cancer, there is still a lot of money to be given out in the next five-year period. In the past five years we've seen cancer research across the state mushroom, with new facilities and impressive hires from prestigious institutes in other parts of the country (notably Boston). The plan to put Texas squarely in the top tier of cancer research meccas (and biotech hotbeds) has been a success.
The housecleaning that is now going on at CPRIT is almost certainly what the agency needs to reestablish themselves with Texas' voters and the scientific community. We'll be watching in the coming months to see how effective Kripke and the new team are, and whether there is further fallout from the Peloton funding matter, including further resignations. Peloton, it should be noted, is headed by noted scientists who claim they were unaware that their application had was not processed through correct channels. They are reapplying.
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