The hundreds of internal documents reveal escalating concerns over integrity and scientific scrutiny within the Cancer and Prevention Research Institute of Texas, which until now has been flatteringly hailed as an unprecedented bankrolling of cancer research on the state level.
Allegations of undeserved awards and political influence sullying the funding process were levied by Dr. Alfred Gilman, the agency's chief scientific officer and a Nobel prize winner in medicine.
"I can of course make the case that I was attempting to prevent improper distribution of taxpayer funds, as well as protesting the lack of awards to well-reviewed proposals based on political considerations," Gilman wrote in an April 25 email to colleagues.
Gilman wrote that Bill Gimson, the executive director of CPRIT, had suggested he resign that morning and told him the agency's oversight committee no longer had faith in his job performance.
Gilman announced his resignation less than two weeks later. He is planning to leave in October.
Ellen Read, a spokeswoman for CPRIT, said Thursday that Gimson was not available for comment. The agency did not immediately release a statement about the contents contained within the reams of released documents, which were first obtained by The Dallas Morning News.
Gilman appeared particularly incensed by a decision to temporarily shelve a slate of research grants already recommended for funding. Gimson said he was told that James Mansour, chairman of the oversight committee, believed that all of the proposals would need a second review.
According to Gilman, roughly half of $56 million in recommended grants would go to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where Gilman is a former provost. In a March 26 letter to Gimson and Mansour, Gilman wrote that it seemed to him that "political considerations" were behind the delay.
"I told Gimson this was the bomb that would destroy CPRIT: a complete rejection of the peer review system," Gilman wrote. "Mass resignation. Horrible publicity. He asked for time to discuss with Jimmy (Mansour)."
CPRIT until now has come under virtually no scrutiny since Texas voters in 2007 overwhelmingly approved $3 billion in taxpayer funding over 10 years. It makes Texas home to the second-biggest pot of cancer research dollars in the nation behind the National Cancer Institute, and has lured dozens of the county's top cancer researchers to the state.
The agency's first brush with controversy erupted this month when Gilman, in his resignation letter, criticized a $20 million grant for a so-called incubator project at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. It's the largest amount of money the agency has ever awarded for a single project.
Gilman wanted the agency's scientific review panel to evaluate M.D. Anderson's application first. Gimson, however, said such a review was not required under agency rules, adding that the proposal was sufficiently reviewed by a separate panel tasked with evaluating commercial projects.
The University of Texas System has begun investigating whether the M.D. Anderson grant application was legal and proper, system spokesman Anthony de Bruyn told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday. The system's conflict of interest committee also will review any potential issues in the application.
De Bruyn did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press on Thursday night.
The eight-member scientific review panel has also expressed concerns about the project bypassing its review. The panel is chaired by Dr. Phillip Sharp, professor at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The proposal submitted by M.D. Anderson was only 6 1/2 pages long. Sharp told the AP on Thursday that while the panel believed the project warranted its scrutiny, not enough detail was contained in the original proposal to even do so.
Asked if he thought the proposal was substantial enough to even pass a commercialization review, Sharp said it's not his position to judge that. But he said his panel has previously been tasked with reviewing "similar, if not identical" proposals to what M.D. Anderson submitted.
"Twenty millions for one year, that's a pretty big bill," Sharp said.
On Wednesday, CPRIT announced that it had accepted an offer by M.D. Anderson to subject the now-controversial proposal to a second round of scrutiny before receiving any funding. The agency gave no indication, however, that the scientific panel will be involved this time around, either.
"At this point, both institutions have critical work to conduct and must do everything possible to move beyond this controversy and reassure the public of this award's value to future cancer patients," wrote Dr. Ronald DePhino, president of M.D. Anderson.