The National Cancer Institute confirmed Friday that federal officials are taking a closer look at a troubled $3 billion cancer-fighting effort in Texas that is under a criminal investigation over a lucrative taxpayer-funded grant awarded by the state agency.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has coveted status as an NCI-approved funding entity — an exclusive group headlined by the nation's most prominent cancer organizations. The list is fewer than two dozen and includes the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and federal entities like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The designation is a federal seal-of-approval that signals high peer review standards and conflict of interest policies. Yearlong turmoil within the Texas institute, or CPRIT, reached a new peak this week when the agency's beleaguered chief executive asked to resign and prosecutors opened cases following an $11 million grant to a private company that was revealed to have bypassed an independent review.
NCI spokeswoman Aleea Farrakh Khan told The Associated Press that officials are "evaluating recent events" at CPRIT. She said officials have not made decisions or contacted the agency directly.
Members of CPRIT's governing board did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
NCI designation is not required for CPRIT to continue running the nation's second-largest pot of cancer research dollars, Khan said. But jeopardizing that status — and especially losing it — would be a severe blow to CPRIT's reputation, which already has been battered by sweeping resignations, internal accusations of politics trumping science and now a criminal investigation.
A recent internal audit at CPRIT discovered an $11 million funding request from Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics was approved without the agency ever scrutinizing the proposal's merits. The revelation came only months after two Nobel laureates and other top scientists left the agency in protest over a $20 million grant some accused of being rushed to approval without a proper peer review.
While CPRIT is funded by taxpayers, donors to cancer nonprofits might look to an NCI designation for assurance that their money is in good hands.
"It says, 'If I'm donating money to this agency, if NCI is approving them, that means NCI says it's handling its money well,'" Khan said.
Khan added that CPRIT's inclusion on the list does not mean all of its funding mechanisms are NCI-approved.
An entire page of CPRIT's website is devoted to boasting its NCI designation. The agency says the status is important because it means cancer centers in Texas seeking its own NCI designation — so as to reassure patients or bolster recruitment — can include CPRIT research dollars in their calculations to maintain levels needed to be NCI approved.
"This enhances Texas' ability to leverage additional federal funding for cancer research and raises Texas' profile as a center for cancer research," according to the website.
Executive Director Bill Gimson submitted his resignation letter Tuesday but offered to stay on through January. He has described Peloton's improper funding as an honest mistake and said no one associated with CPRIT stood to personally profit from the company's award.
Prosecutors have not made any specific criminal allegations. Launching separate investigations into CPRIT are the Texas attorney general's office and the Travis County district attorney's public integrity unit, which investigates criminal misconduct within state government.