Why is CPRIT even funding commercial enterprises? Didn't voters expect the bond money to support research?[Answer: Voters did, and there was no mention of commercialization in the ballot measure. Legislators did get language about commercialization into the enabling legislation, however.]
Newspapers and bloggers have not been happy with what is going on. Nor have some former supporters. Cathy Bonner, a cancer survivor and activist who had worked hard to get the agency established, said succinctly:
The vision was to make Texas the center for curing cancer. It wasn't to make Texas the center for capitalizing on cancer.
But those in power show few signs of giving ground. After the resignations in October, a joint letter from the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House urged more commercialization:
It is now time for CPRIT to take further steps to fulfill its statutory mission and expedite innovation that will deliver new cancer treatments to patients within three to five years.
In an October appearance at CPRIT, Perry stated:
Since CPRIT's creation, you all have helped lay a sound foundation to establish one of the greatest cancer-fighting tools in human history. The challenge that remains before us is to build on that foundation and finally begin curing cancer once and for all.As The Cancer Letter tartly observed :
This statement could mean either that (a) Perry doesn’t realize that his claim that Texas has done all the basic science required to proceed to cranking out cancer cures would not gain wide traction among scientists and clinicians, or (b) CPRIT has become precisely what the governor and others in Texas politics want it to be: a pot of public money that can be dispensed for commercial or political purposes.
Interviewed by the Houston Chronicle in January, Perry continued in the same vein:
Matt Winkler, a member of CPRIT's Scientific and Prevention Advisory Council, last week expressed his opinion to the Austin Statesman that the criticism of commercialization -- Winkler prefers the term "product development" -- was totally on the wrong track. "Continuing to short-change commercialization, Winkler said, comes at the expense of patients because money for basic research is unlikely to benefit patients during the 10-year lifetime of CPRIT. Winkler says lawmakers should insist on more investment in commercialization companies, not less." According to Winkler:The way that the Legislature intended it was to get cures into the public's area as soon as possible and at the same time create economic avenues (from) which wealth can be created. Basic research takes a long time and may or may not ever create wealth.
Much of the essential basic research that has given us our fundamental understanding of cancer has been done. The challenge now is to fill in the details and to move this knowledge into the clinic.
Disagreeing strongly with these ways of thinking,Walt Goodpastor, who lost a son to cancer, angrily wrote:
I don't know where Perry studied economics. But CPRIT's wealth has already been created. It was created by the productive citizens of Texas. What Perry wants to do is transfer that wealth into the pockets of private corporations.
I do not believe the industry is particularly interested in finding true cures. Its business model is based on treating cancer. As in prevention, there is little profit to be made in a cure. Treating cancer provides an ongoing stream of revenue. Curing or preventing cancer would end that revenue stream.
I believe that the most bang for our buck would come from awarding grants to independent individual scientists who are working on promising leads.
And the Houston Chronicle editorialized on January 15:
To get the most cancer-fighting bang for its bucks, CPRIT ought to focus on important research that private companies won't do: the slow, might-not-pay-off basic research that sometimes yields enormous breakthroughs; and research on cheap therapies and prevention measures - stuff that, even if it works beautifully against cancer, won't yield a patentable, profitable drug.
If there's a high probability that a given line of research will create wealth in a short amount of time, you can bet that a pharmaceutical company will bankroll that project on its own - no government help needed.
Nobel laureates Gilman and Sharp, who had led the walkout, wrote their own editorial, which says in part:
Texans deserve to hear the truth about cancer. They must understand that miracles will not happen in a short time. Progress will not be made by those who simply proclaim without explanation that they can do better than hundreds of skillfully staffed and well-financed pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. . .
Reliance on peer review to identify the best science must continue to guide CPRIT in the future. Of course, there are other ways to distribute public funds, but they are worse.