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Texas cancer probe draws federal scrutiny

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.

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.

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.

Khan added that CPRIT's inclusion on the list does not mean all of its funding mechanisms are 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.

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.
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