Tanya Paull

University officials are still unsure of how proposed funding cuts to a troubled state agency would affect the $30 million to $40 million in cancer research grants it has recieved from the agency.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, a state agency formed by a constitutional amendment in 2007 for the purpose of issuing $3 billion in bonds for cancer research funds, is currently under investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s office and the Travis County District Attorney’s office for how it approved and distributed grants. The Texas Legislative Budget Board recommended cutting all state funds to CPRIT for the 2014-15 biennium while lawmakers sort out how CPRIT made its decisions.

UT and CPRIT have different numbers for the amount of money the agency has allocated to the University in grant funds, and neither institution was able to explain the discrepancy.

Green said UT has been awarded $29.3 million by CPRIT so far, while the agency’s website states CPRIT has granted $38.4 million to UT since 2010. The page lists individual grants awarded by CPRIT. 

CPRIT information specialist Ellen Read said financial employees at the agency do not know why there is a discrepancy, but that they believe the agency granted $37.9 million to UT-Austin, not $38.4 million.

Tim Green, spokesman for the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research, said he does not know what effect the potential cuts would have on cancer research projects at the University.

“At this point, we aren’t sure what the impact of a cutoff of funding would be,” Green said.

CPRIT awarded Tanya Paull, molecular genetics and microbiology professor, two grants to conduct cancer-related research in 2010 and 2011.

Paull said she does not know if her grants, which total about $1.6 million, would be affected because she does not know if CPRIT’s current situation will impact grants that have already been contracted.

She said she believes CPRIT can still deliver on its mission despite the turmoil surrounding the agency.

“If they can fix the oversight issue, there’s still a lot of good that the program can do,” Paull said.

A January report by the State Auditor’s office revealed that three members of CPRIT’s executive team had offices located on campuses of higher education institutions that received grants from the agency. The office also found that three grants, two involving the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, failed to follow state law and the agency’s own procedures for approving grants. 

Members of the Legislature are considering reforms to the agency. State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and state Rep. James Keffer, R-Eastland, have each filed legislation that would require CPRIT to implement certain changes to its practices, including publishing an annual report that outlines its process for awarding grants, the dollar amount of grants awarded that year and the recipients of those grants.

At a Senate Health and Human Services Committee meeting Tuesday, Nelson said she hopes to prevent individuals within CPRIT from taking “egregious liberties” with policy determined by the Legislature.

“I am disappointed. I am angry but I am also determined to prevent the poor judgment of a few to derail the hopes of millions of Texans suffering directly or, through a loved one, indirectly from this disease,” Nelson said.

Molecular genetics and microbiology professor Tanya Paull studies how cells respond to DNA damage and to a cellular imbalance called oxidative stress. Her research on cell damage has implications for cancer treatment as well as the treatment of ataxia-telangiectasia, a rare neurodegenerative disorder that inhibits movement and coordination. She is the winner of a CPRIT Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, grant and one of 330 Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators in the nation.

Daily Texan: What are you studying in your research now?
Tanya Paull: We primarily work on DNA damage response, which is a series of events that occur after double-strand breaks happen in chromosomal DNA. The chromosome is made up of a DNA double helix, a double-strand break occurs when the helix is severed into multiple pieces. Cells have ways of recognizing, binding to and signaling those damaged DNA molecules very, very rapidly. So, we study those events that occur during that first recognition process. We look at how breaks are repaired.

We do this using biochemistry, which means that we make these enzymes, purify them and look at what the enzymes are doing. You can control everything in the reaction very carefully, which lets you make conclusions about what exactly those enzymes are doing.

DT: I know you are funded by the Cancer Prevention Institute of Texas. How does you work fit into the field of cancer research?
Paull: We’re funded by cancer research organizations because there’s an obvious relation to cancer, although we’re not doing things like testing drugs. We’re not trying out new cancer therapies. We’re at the basic research level trying to understand why loss of certain genes results in cancer, and what the enzymes encoded by those genes normally do.

DT: I read you do research on an enzyme called ATM, which plays a role in tumor growth. What is the importance of ATM?
Paull: [ATM] is also occasionally found to be lost or mutated in spontaneous tumors in normal people. There’s been a lot of sequencing of cancer genomes recently, now that sequencing DNA is getting to be so inexpensive. Cancer is this whole progression of events — basically changes in the genome — that lead to a cell having the ability to grow without normal control. Normally, our cells have redundant layers of growth control, so there are many things that have to be disabled before a cell can get to that point. ATM is one of those things. It’s found to be gone or mutated in a certain percentage of tumors. In some cancer types, it’s gone in 50 percent of cases; in others it might be a rare event.

DT: Is the kind of research you do going to help doctors cater their treatments to patients depending on which kind of tumor they have?
Paull: Personalized cancer treatment is something we talk a lot about. It’s the idea that someday in the future you’re going to go in with a cancer diagnosis and someone will be able tell you, “In comparison with your normal genome you have these thousand changes that have occurred in your tumor.” I don’t think we’re that far from getting there. That’s mainly a cost issue at this point. The problem is, once you get this information, what does that mean? Maybe, out of those thousand mutations, there are one or two that are absolutely known to cause your type of cancer. But, in most cases, you find these mutations, and you don’t know what those things do. What do you do with the information? Figuring that out it is going to take a really long time.

DT: Right now, what’s the most advanced cancer treatment in terms of personalizing care?
Paull: Well, it’s been done very successfully with certain types of breast cancer. There’s a particular receptor that’s on certain breast cancers and not others, which they can pretty easily test for now. If you have that receptor, you can receive a treatment that is specifically for that tumor type and avoid going through all the horrible chemotherapy that just generally kills everything growing in your body. This [treatment] has been extremely successful. The toxicity is much less and there’s a huge success rate. So, that kind of thing is what everyone wants, but it takes a long time to get even one of those successes. 

Printed on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 as: UT professor speaks about her cell damage, cancer research

News Briefly

UT faculty recently earned three grants worth $4.7 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to improve understanding of cancer treatment options.

UT’s Texas Institute for Drug and Diagnostic Development earned a $2.4 million grant. Kevin Dalby, associate professor of medicinal chemistry and co-director of the drug-development institute, said the state of Texas is going to spend $3 billion on cancer research over 10 years.

“This grant money will be used for screening for potential drugs,” Dalby said. “In collaboration with other universities, we have a combined program where we’re doing different things, but the ultimate aim is to find drugs that can cure cancer.”

The cancer institute also awarded Tanya Paull, a professor in molecular genetics and microbiology, a separate $1 million grant for her research.

“We’re doing research on the mechanisms of double-strand break repair, which is a form of DNA repair that is in all human cells. We’re trying to understand how that process takes place,” Paull said.

She said DNA damage and how cells deal with that damage is important in terms of whether conditions result in cancer.

Maria Person, director of the Protein and Metabolite Analysis Facility at the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology and the College of Pharmacy, got a $1.3 million grant to purchase mass-spectrometry equipment to examine molecular DNA damage.