Future of taxpayer-funded cancer research in the hands of Texas lawmakers

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The debate over whether taxpayer-funded cancer research should continue in Texas will likely be a focus for lawmakers when they return to the Texas State Capitol in January.

Voters approved $3 billion in funding for the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, in 2007. During the 85th Texas Legislature, the agency’s sunset review date was extended to 2023. Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, has filed two bills to renew the agency.

House Bill 39 will allow CPRIT to continue beyond the original timeframe set by the initial enacting legislation. House Joint Resolution 12 proposes a constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to increase the maximum bond amount authorized for CPRIT to $6 billion.

“I think the creation of CPRIT back in 2007 was probably one of the boldest moves the state of Texas made in the area of healthcare that I’ve seen,” Zerwas said.

He points to the research by James Allison, chair of immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, who jointly received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. It was for his work with Tasuku Honjo on cancer immunotherapy. 

“James Allison would not be at MD Anderson with the resources and talent that he has brought to Texas were it not for CPRIT,” he said.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin also credit CPRIT grant funding for helping them access equipment and recruit other scientists to their departments.

“We don’t have to tell them anything,” Dan Leahy, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biosciences, said. “We just have to let them know what resources are available to get their research careers up and running.”

David Taylor, a CPRIT scholar and assistant professor of molecular biosciences, said CPRIT funds helped him get to the University of Texas at Austin from UC Berkeley. He is on the team that helped get its facility with a Titan Krios cryo-electron microscope.

“Having this type of equipment and being able to do the research we’re doing here at UT Austin because of the money that came from CPRIT I think really increases the chances of some sort of fundamental research discovery that’s going to come out of this university or Texas as a whole,” Taylor said.

In 2012, state leaders delayed the grants due to allegations of corruption, but restored funding after passing requirements for the grant process and improving oversight.

“We have really improved our oversight through public oversight and involvement in that as well as staff directly involved in that,” Zerwas said.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, wants the agency to be financially self-sufficient. He’s filed Senate Bill 200, which would require the agency to develop a detailed plan to become financially self-sufficient and to continue operations without state funds other than patent royalties and license revenues realized as a result of projects undertaken with money awarded by the cancer prevention and research fund. The plan would have to be submitted to lawmakers by December 2020.

“You’re not going to find anyone opposed to the goal of curing cancer, but with most of the $3 billion approved by Texas voters now spent, I think it is an appropriate time to ask what CPRIT’s long-term future looks like when that money finally runs out,” Schwertner said. “My primary concern is that with so many other critical priorities like mental health infrastructure, foster care, and public schools competing for funding, I’m not sure the state should be so quick to commit more taxpayer money to something that — while unquestionably noble — is really not an essential function of state government.  Ultimately, I’d like to set CPRIT on a path that ensures it can sustain itself without depending upon the generosity of Texas taxpayers.”

The agency’s spokesperson, however, said CPRIT’s model isn’t set up that way.

“Self-sustainability is not expressed as an objective in CPRIT’s constitutional mandate or state law,” Chris Cutrone said. “We’re supporting a strong, diversified cancer-fighting portfolio, but not one designed to generate near-term financial returns capable of supporting the ongoing operations of the agency. Royalty revenue stemming from successful drug development takes at least 15 years to materialize. CPRIT has only been making awards since 2010.”

According to CPRIT’s website, the agency has funded 1,317 awards for cancer research, product development and prevention. The total amount awarded so far is $2.1 billion. Recipients include academic institutions, non-profit organizations and private companies across the state.

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