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Texas Cancer Agency Names James Willson Top Science Officer

Xconomy Texas — 

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has a new chief scientific officer: James Willson.

Willson comes from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and had also spent a decade as the director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center in Cleveland. I spoke with him this week as he prepares to move to Austin to assume the state agency post by March 1.

“I’ve been a leader of a cancer center in two different communities and have participated in building the infrastructure in the university setting,” Willson says. “Now I have the opportunity to use those talents on a larger scale across Texas.”

Willson says one of his first items of business in the new post is to go on a “listening tour” with scientists and officials at the state’s top cancer institutions. “With the president’s State of the Union, this is the golden time for taking next steps in terms of cancer research and translation to impact patients,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for cooperation not only within Texas but across the nation in terms of leveraging these precious resources.”

CPRIT, as the agency is known, started in 2007 with a 10-year mandate to invest $3 billion of taxpayer money for cancer-related research, drug development, and prevention in Texas. Since inception, the agency has given out 806 research grants totaling a little more than $1 billion, 104 researcher recruitment grants for $308.1 million, 28 product development grants of $270.1 million, and 158 prevention grants of $155.4 million. (The agency was put on a yearlong hiatus in 2012 following legislative and criminal scrutiny over improperly allocated grants.)

Willson succeeds Margaret Kripke, who became the agency’s top scientist in 2012 and announced her retirement last year.

While Willson’s new role comes with a focus on boosting academic research, he says he plans to work with the agency’s commercialization staff to help translate that research into viable therapies. “We’re bringing new talent and new ideas from across the country in building the next generation of cancer researchers and physicians,” he says. “We’re looking to build the opportunities for taking the fruits of that discovery into impacting patients.”