Texas Cancer Agency Resuscitated, But Fate of Pending Grants Unknown

6/12/13Follow @angelashah

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Klemp at Moleculin said he supports efforts to reform the institute, and he hopes that the changes can allow CPRIT to return quickly to its primary mission: funding science that can help save lives.

“We have no connection whatsoever to any reviewers or administrators,” he says. “We’re completely conflict-free … How do we get this system back up?”

Roberts said that before CPRIT can resume reviewing grant applications, old or new, it must take care of a number of administrative functions in compliance with the new regulations and get moving on a number of key hires, including finding a permanent executive director, a chief commercialization officer, and scientists to serve as peer reviewers.

In the meantime, the scientists and entrepreneurs are trying to balance waiting for CPRIT with staying active enough to ensure their research doesn’t get stale. “An early-stage pharmaceutical tech company like ours is like fresh fruit on the shelf,” said Jon Northrup, CEO at Beta Cat Pharmaceuticals in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “If it doesn’t move forward, it spoils.”

Northrup’s company is seeking $15 million in grant funds to carry out work to create a drug that targets cancer stem cells. “The cancer stem cells are the main reasons that cancer is able to survive chemotherapy and come back more resistant, eventually killing the patient,” Northrup said.

Beta Cat presented before the institute’s review committee in December, just days before the moratorium was announced. Northrup said he’d be willing to consider starting over in the process but would need guidance from CPRIT soon. If he can get CPRIT funding, he said, he would move his company to Texas.

In fact, attracting innovative young companies to Texas and helping them bring new cancer treatments to market was a key reason for CPRIT’s formation. Since its 2007 inception, CPRIT has awarded more than $835 million in a total of 498 grants, including 13 commercialization grants worth$98 million.

A healthy and active CPRIT is key, said David Schubert, executive director of the Houston Area Translational Research Consortium, because venture capital firms are unlikely to support early-stage life sciences companies like Beta Cat and Moleculin as they attempt to transfer their laboratory ideas into clinical trials and eventual commercialization.

The consortium, known as HATRC, had won a $20 million grant from CPRIT in March 2012 for a new pre-commercialization center at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative, which was designed to bring new technologies and therapies to market to prevent, treat, and cure cancer.

But the grant approval was rescinded in May 2012. In its report this past January, the state auditor said that the grant had been given without scientific, due diligence, or intellectual property reviews.

Schubert had joined HATRC in May 2012, two months after the grant had been awarded to the organization. He declined to comment on the grant, but in a separate conversation he said he believes CPRIT represents a unique opportunity to fight the “war” on cancer.

“We shouldn’t let the mistakes of a few tarnish the whole reason why we got into the war in the first place,” he said.

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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