Texas Nobel Prize winning cancer researcher Dr. Alfred Gilman dies

Dr. Alfred Gilman (Photo: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center)
Dr. Alfred Gilman (Photo: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center)

AUSTIN (AP) — Dr. Alfred Gilman, who won a Nobel Prize for his breakthrough research into the inner workings of cells and later left Texas’ much-ballyhooed $3 billion cancer-fighting initiative, citing a lack of oversight that led to a scandal, has died. He was 74.

Gilman was the former dean of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, where colleagues said he was dedicated to solid science and an outspoken critic of subpar work. Spokesman Russell Rian said Thursday that the school learned of Gilman’s death from his family. The scientist had been fighting pancreatic cancer.

Gilman shared a 1994 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Dr. Martin Rodbell of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for their discovery of G proteins. The proteins help in the process of receiving signals from outside the cell and activating responses.

“The mechanism that he found explains how many drugs act, it explains how many hormones act and it basically explains how the body responds to its environment,” said Dr. Michael Brown, himself a Noble laureate in 1985, who 35 years ago had the laboratory next to Gilman’s at UT Southwestern.

Brown said Thursday that, back then, he and Gilman “were drawn together not only by our love of Tanqueray and cigarettes, but because we both shared a passion for rigorous science.”

Gilman was born July 1, 1941, in New Haven, Connecticut, and discovered G proteins while at the University of Virginia in 1977. He became chairman of pharmacology at UT Southwestern in 1981.

In 2009, Gilman became chief scientific officer for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, whose creation was approved by voters two years earlier. It later became the country’s second-largest pot of cancer research funding.

But Gilman resigned in 2012 and revealed some internal concerns over funding, suggesting there was not enough scrutiny of grants that won approval. He also worried the initiative, known as CPRIT, was more focused on marketable research than sound science.

Prosecutors indicted a top state executive the next year on charges related to $11 million in taxpayer funds that the agency awarded to a private company without review, though the executive was later acquitted.

“Al Gilman hated sloppy or phony science and he was compelled to speak out whenever he saw it,” Brown said. “Sometimes it was very inconvenient for him, but his conscience made him do it.”

Daniel Podolsky, president of the UT Southwestern Medical Center, called the resignation “an extremely painful period for Al.”

“Here’s someone who had lived his entire life adhering to the integrity of what he did, and that being implicitly questioned by some, when there was nothing about it in terms of self-aggrandizement or self-service,” Podolsky said Thursday. “I never doubted he would do anything less than defend what he thought was right in terms of how CPRIT was going to invest in research to really have an impact.”

Podolsky said Gilman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more than two years ago and “was absolutely staunch and courageous in fighting it.”

Gilman is survived by his wife, Kathryn; daughters Amy Ariagno and Anne Sincovec; and a son, Edward Gilman.

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