Texas makes fighting cancer its next big step

AUSTIN, —Texas gave birth to the modern oil industry, invented the handheld calculator and sent man to the moon. But can the Lone Star State cure cancer?

Texas is ready to try by investing $3 billion over the next decade in cancer research and prevention, which would make the state the gatekeeper of the second largest pot of cancer research dollars in the country, behind only the National Cancer Institute.

"I don't know anyone that would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with what they're trying to do," said Robert Urban, executive director of the Koch Institute for Innovative Cancer Research at MIT.

That impression is what Texas leaders sought in 2007, when the state created the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas through an ambitious bond measure approved by voters. Lance Armstrong, champion cyclist and cancer survivor, sold the plan to voters, and Gov. Rick Perry said he dreamed of a day "we talk about cancer the same way we talk about polio."

Texas is now putting out the call to scientists: Come and get the money.

Institute leaders say the money will fund drug developments, gamble on high-risk research turned away elsewhere and attract big-name scientists to Texas. Creating the first statewide clinical trial network, which could give cancer patients more access to experimental drugs, also is being discussed.

But so much money on the table — particularly in the hands of a state that's new to funding cancer research — has some researchers worried that politics and backroom deals will play a role in deciding who gets what. The agency will invest upward of $260 million a year on cancer research and $30 million in preventive services such as early detection screenings.

A sagging economy also makes some skittish about whether the state will follow through with funding for an entire decade.

"That $3 billion isn't in the bank," said Tyler Curiel, executive director of the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "What if the money isn't going to be there in the future?"

Curiel is among the hundreds of researchers who began writing applications last month for a slice of the $450 million Texas will hand out over the first two years. The first grants are expected to be awarded by spring.