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
"Hopefully we can get this agency straightened out," said
Pitts, the likely chairman of the state House Appropriations
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
(Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan. Editing by Andre Grenon)