AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — State leaders on Wednesday finally lifted a nearly yearlong moratorium on Texas' $3 billion cancer agency, which came unraveled by a criminal investigation, questionable spending and mass resignations by some of the nation's top scientists.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas received approval to resume handing out taxpayer money to grant winners, removing a stigma that had remained even after lawmakers this spring revamped the agency and installed new leadership.
The ambitious state agency, known as CPRIT, launched in 2009 and controls the second-biggest pot of cancer research dollars in the country.
Gov. Rick Perry and other state leaders halted spending by the agency last December after an $11 million grant to a private company was found to have bypassed required scrutiny. Other failings within the agency were also uncovered.
"This action by our state's leadership is a vote of confidence in the agency's efforts and a critical milestone for CPRIT," said Wayne Roberts, the agency's interim executive director. "We have been working hard in preparation for this moment and are ready to move forward with deliberate purpose, accountability and transparency to serve all Texans."
The moratorium was lifted two days before a newly appointed CPRIT oversight board was to hold its first meeting.
CPRIT still is not entirely in the clear. Public corruption prosecutors in Travis County are still investigating the agency and had recently been preparing to present their findings to the grand jury.
The investigation was launched after CPRIT disclosed giving a private biomedical startup, Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics, an $11 million award in 2010 without scrutinizing the merits of the company's proposal. The discovery came on the heels of the agency funding a $20 million project that was criticized for not first undergoing an independent scientific review.
Top scientists picked to peer-review grant proposals resigned in protest and blasted the agency's integrity. Days before Perry announced the moratorium last year, even the National Cancer Institute acknowledged that it was monitoring the ongoing agency troubles.
The problems put a target on CPRIT by the time the Legislature convened in January. Supporters feared the agency would be scrapped altogether, but lawmakers instead passed sweeping reforms and mandated the removal of the previous 11-member oversight board.
"The reforms passed by the Legislature will make CPRIT more transparent and accountable to the public," Republican House Speaker Joe Straus said. "The agency is now equipped to implement those reforms and move forward with the critical mission of fighting cancer."
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