The state’s investment in cancer research is paying off, but is its funding sustainable?

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No one knows when the next dollar spent on medical research will be the one that leads to an amazing  breakthrough. It is a certainty, however, that dollars not spent will not change the world.

Texas holds the distinction of being the second largest public funder of cancer research, trailing only the federal government’s National Cancer Institute. It’s a little-known status gained when Texas voters in 2007 approved the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, a $3 billion state grant program commonly known as CPRIT, to fight cancer.

CPRIT has elevated Texas’ research capacity and reputation, but the time may have arrived for the organization and lawmakers to find an additional funding stream so that CPRIT doesn’t have to rely on the increased debt burden that comes with funding research through taxpayer-backed bonds.

Here’s why: The program has disbursed about $2.26 billion of the $3 billion authorized after lawmakers created the agency in 2007, meaning that it needs to replenish its coffers. The House and Senate this session wisely agreed to reseed the program with another $3 billion, which CPRIT will receive if voters approve it in a constitutional amendment at the polls in November.

If that is the option voters have, we hope they approve the funding. But it should be noted that funding research this way is pricey. That is to say, we’ll pay a lot of money on interest.

Debt service on the original $3 billion is estimated to be $4.7 billion through 2048, and another $5.4 billion through 2060 on the additional $3 billion if voters approve that measure. In other words, for this next round, we’ll pay $2.4 billion in interest in order to get $3 billion in cancer research dollars. One way to think about that $2.4 billion is the price for a political system that otherwise wouldn’t be able to reliably carve out this money for crucial research over a sustained period of time.

And we should make no mistake, the research made possible by this funding is critically important. CPRIT is the reason 170 cancer researchers and their labs are in the state, including James Allison at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize from an innovative approach to cancer therapy.

UT Southwestern and other University of Texas institutions have received millions for cancer research from the agency.  CPRIT funding has supported 109 clinical trials, lured 12 companies to the state and laid the groundwork for $1.75 billion in follow-on investing by venture capital firms in startup companies. Such accomplishments must be nurtured, so lawmakers should be asking whether bonds, or bonds alone, are the best way to achieve this objective.  

CPRIT officials say bonds are an appropriate funding mechanism, noting that it often takes more than a decade for researchers to develop an oncology drug. That, they say, makes it impossible to fund research on a pay-as-you-go basis.

It’s true that pay-as-you-go isn’t the way to go, but bonds alone aren’t the only way to create a stable source of funding.  Would it not be better to save the interest and find an independent revenue stream? That would reduce reliance on debt and potentially free up funding for other priorities.

The state has proven it can support critical research, and it must be able to do so in a sustainable way.