Could taxpayer-funded cancer research end in Texas?

A chemistry lab inside the University of Texas Austin (Julie Karam, KXAN).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A big debate on how state tax money is spent to fund cancer research heads to UT Dell Medical School Wednesday, after accusations that millions of dollars was mismanaged. Sen. Kirk Watson and officials from CPRIT and UT researchers will talk about whether funding should continue for the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

In 2007, voters approved $3 billion in funding for CPRIT. The first grants were handed out in 2009 with funding coming to an end in 2022. Dr. Jonathan Sessler, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and the University of Texas says the funding has put Texas on the map as the leading state researching a cure for cancer.

“It’s made us the center, the best in the world,” Sessler said. “The best of the best want to come here and are coming here — those of us who are here are not being lured away. It has made cancer the prime research focus.”

It has also created more than 11,000 jobs, and UT brought 12 top researchers in who have received a combined $74 million in funding from CPRIT. New vaccines, drugs and a device called a cancer pen that can detect skin cancer have been developed.

But, CPRIT made headlines in 2012 when more than $50 million dollars in grants were mismanaged. That led to Sen. Charles Schwertner (R) Georgetown sponsoring a bill during the 2015 legislation session calling on CPRIT to become self-sufficient with its funding in the future. While it didn’t pass, it was a signal lawmakers might not want to renew it.

Some point to new leadership at CPRIT since the 2012 mismanagement that now holds the funding accountable.

“It uses a peer-reviewed process that is second to none. It uses peer reviewers from out of state to make sure there isn’t any unfair bias within the state of Texas,” says Cam Scott, senior director of Texas Government Relations with the American Cancer Society.

Another question from lawmakers is whether enough tangible treatments have been created from the funding. Dr. Sessler, a three-time cancer survivor, says developing new cancer drugs takes time.

“It takes $1 billion to $2 billion to develop a cancer drug and it takes a decade or a decade and a half to develop,” Sessler said. “The goal of CPRIT should not be a pharmaceutical company.”

The American Cancer Society polled 800 Texas voters to determine whether there was support for continued funding of CPRIT and found 74 percent of respondents supported it.

Lawmakers will likely decide next session whether to provide additional funding. Leaders will meet at the UT Dell Medical School Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. to discuss the matter. The public is invited to attend.

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