Program turns Texas into Cancer Research Powerhouse

Jun. 8, 2011 in News Articles

By Todd Ackerman
Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle

Houston is loading up on superstar cancer scientists, bankrolled in part by a generously funded state program that’s transforming Texas into the nation’s center of research on the deadly disease.

Three weeks after an internationally renowned Harvard geneticist was selected as the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s next president, Rice University and the Methodist Hospital Research Institute have lured five more heavyweights to the city. Four were recruited through the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), the $3 billion initiative voters approved in 2007.

“These recruits are a spectacular victory for Texas and Houston,” said Alfred Gilman, chief scientific officer for CPRIT. “Word is now flashing around the world what a great environment we provide for cancer researchers.”

All five of the hires, announced last week, are members of the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s most distinguished organization of scientists. Their addition increases Houston’s total to 17, and the state’s to 61.

Less than two years into the 10-year program, the Texas cancer institute has recruited 24 cancer researchers, a mix of powerhouse scientists, “rising stars” and first-time faculty. It provided $25 million of the four new recruits’ packages — institutions match the funding — drawing from a war chest one recruit calls “game-changing” and another says will “no doubt make Texas the new hotbed of cancer research in the United States.”

“It’s a strong shot in the arm,” says incoming M.D. Anderson President Dr. Ronald DePinho, who calls the program one of several factors that convinced him to leave Boston for Houston. “It’s already garnered a significant amount of attention, and you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Half a dozen more

CPRIT expects to add as many as half a dozen more recruits by the last meeting of the fiscal year in July, then fare even better in the program’s second biennium, when its allocation grows from the $450 million it received the past two years to the full $600 million authorized by voters. The money comes from bonds and is unaffected by the state’s revenue shortfall.

The opportunity to work in the same medical complex as DePinho was cited by a few of the new recruits, who include physicists Herbert Levine and José Onuchic and chemist Peter Wolynes, all headed to Rice; and mouse geneticists Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, a husband-wife team joining Methodist.

Levine, Onuchic and Wolynes, all currently at the University of California San Diego, will apply new concepts in theoretical physics to cancer, according to Onuchic. He praised Texas’ willingness to take risks and said the CPRIT funding will provide “a springboard” for the field.

Lured to Houston

Copeland and Jenkins, co-authors of more than 780 papers, have identified genes associated with numerous diseases, including leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma and pancreatic, lung, breast and prostate cancer. Relocating from Singapore, they will now focus exclusively on cancer and try to devise effective new drugs based on novel targets they’ve found.

Copeland said the CPRIT money was attractive at a time when funding from the National Institutes of Health is tight. M.D. Anderson’s proximity to Methodist and the chance to help build a new world-class research institute there were other factors that lured him to Houston, he said.

A sixth big-time recruit, stem-cell scientist Sean Morrison, is joining UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, the center announced earlier in May. Highly sought-after at the University of Michigan, Morrison rebuffed offers made through California’s $3 billion stem-cell initiative to take the Texas cancer institute deal. He said the Texas program “will change the nation’s landscape of biomedical research.”

CPRIT has provided more than $350 million in research grants to Texas scientists since it started in the fall of 2009. Until now, its recruitment program has drawn less attention, perhaps because most of the hires have been first-time faculty, often post-doctoral fellows working in the labs of star researchers. Only one previous recruit came in the same category as the five new high-profile recruits.

‘Another level’

Dr. Thomas Caskey, a molecular geneticist at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and a National Academy of Sciences member, says the emphasis on youth is to be expected.

“Senior leaders draw young talent and thus build a second generation of leaders,” said Caskey. “But what’s critical is faculty in the prime of productivity. Most major breakthroughs in medicine and biology come from youth. Look back on the Lasker and Nobel awardees and you’ll find they made the discoveries in the early stages of their careers.”

Still, it’s the big names that had the nation’s top cancer observers noticing Texas last week.

“Texas has always been a force in cancer research with M.D. Anderson, Baylor College of Medicine and UT Southwestern,” said Dr. Douglas Blayney, medical director of the Stanford Cancer Center. “But now, with CPRIT funding, it’s positioned to take it to another level. Good things follow when you bring on scientists of the caliber Texas just gained.”

Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle