Trouble at Texas cancer institute Lance Armstrong promoted

AUSTIN, Texas, Jan 15 (Reuters) - The Texas cancer research

institute championed by Lance Armstrong is in crisis, with a

criminal investigation under way and state lawmakers moving this

week to dramatically slash its funding.

As Armstrong's troubles mount over his reported admission to

Oprah Winfrey of doping during his cycling career, the

unraveling of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of

Texas he helped establish is another setback.

The nation's second largest source of cancer research money

behind the National Institutes of Health, the Texas institute is

under fire for approving millions of dollars in grants without

properly reviewing applications.

The institute's problems are unrelated to the disgraced

cyclist. Republican state Representative Jim Pitts said Tuesday

that the institute is a separate entity from Armstrong.

"He was just a big part of it," Pitts said. "He was a good

advertiser for that and promoter."

Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer, in 2007 lobbied

at the Texas Capitol and hit the campaign trail on a bus dubbed

"Survivor One" to urge Texas voters to support bonds for a $3

billion cancer research initiative.

The measure established an institute to distribute up to

$300 million in grants a year for 10 years. Voters approved the

bonds and state officials say that, by last month, the state's

cancer institute had awarded more than 500 grants, funded 11

companies seeking to fight cancer and attracted dozens of

scientists to Texas.

The bonds were a highly unusual way to fund ongoing expenses

in Texas, said Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior budget analyst at the

Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. But the plan

pushed by Armstrong and Republican Governor Rick Perry "was

going to make Texas the showcase of the nation," she said.

At the 2007 election-night victory party at an Austin hotel

held by supporters of the cancer initiative, a side-show

featured photos of the famous cancer survivor and cycling

champion signing autographs for children.

Armstrong has since been stripped of his seven Tour de

France titles and the cancer research institute has been told by

state leaders to stop issuing grants.

The institute's trouble surfaced last year. In May, its

chief scientific officer, Nobel laureate Dr. Alfred Gilman,

announced he was resigning, taking issue with a $20 million

grant that was not reviewed by science experts, according to the

Dallas Morning News.

The institute disclosed in November that it made an $11

million award to a company called Peloton Therapeutics without

giving the application a required scientific review, the

newspaper reported. The institute's executive director, Bill

Gimson, resigned in December.

The Travis County District Attorney's Office has launched a

criminal probe of the institute, said Gregg Cox, director of the

public integrity unit. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has

opened a civil investigation, according to a letter from his

office.

"Hopefully we can get this agency straightened out," said

Pitts, the likely chairman of the state House Appropriations

Committee.

The biennial Texas legislative session began this month and

draft versions of the two-year budget issued by the House and

Senate this week set aside $10 million for the agency, down from

nearly $600 million in the previous two-year period.

Pitts said that was because Perry and other state leaders in

December called for a moratorium on cancer grants until concerns

about the organization are addressed. State budget writers are

likely to give the agency more money before the end of the

legislative session, which continues through May, Pitts said.

The draft budget proposals "reflect the Legislature's

concern and its need for assurance that this agency has firm

controls in place so that state money is used as intended,"

institute interim director Wayne Roberts said.

State Senator Jane Nelson, a Republican author of the

legislation that created the institute, said she is concerned

that the proposed funding cuts send the wrong message and could

jeopardize the work Texas has done to let the world know it is

funding cancer research.

"We need to continue to fund that project. It's too

important," she said.

Nelson said she will be watching the Winfrey interview with

the man who worked behind the scenes to personally coax the

project through obstacles.

"Whatever's going on with the bicycle stuff, Lance Armstrong

has done tremendous things to raise money and focus attention on

cancer," Nelson said on Tuesday. "I still am very grateful for

him."

(Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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