The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas will focus on finding solutions for health disparities among patients with cancer, Michelle Le Beau, the institute’s new chief scientific officer, said to The Cancer Letter.
Le Beau, formerly the director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, started her new job at CPRIT Oct. 11.
“Joining CPRIT is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Le Beau said in an interview. “It’s precisely my passion for CPRIT’s mission, and my background as a cancer researcher and a cancer center director that makes the CSO position such a compelling opportunity.”
CPRIT, the second largest publicly-funded granting organization for cancer after NIH, was founded in 2007, when Texas voters authorized $3 billion in bonds to fund cancer research and prevention programs throughout the state. Now a $6 billion, 20-year initiative, CPRIT has awarded nearly $2.67 billion in grants to Texas researchers, institutions, non-profit organizations and businesses.
The state agency’s initial sunset date was set for 2021, but it has since been extended to 2023. CPRIT received authorization in 2019 for an additional $3 billion from the Texas Legislature, which extends the institute’s operations well past 2023 (The Cancer Letter, Nov. 8, March 22, 2019).
“[CPRIT] will utilize the entirety of my expertise in cancer research, building research programs, outreach, and prevention to benefit cancer patients and their families,” Le Beau said. “I think there are opportunities for strategic deployment of funds in areas of early detection and prevention, childhood cancers, and intractable cancers—with a major emphasis on population disparities in incidence, mortality, and access to care, and particularly those cancers of significance to Texas, such as hepatocellular carcinoma.”
CPRIT is poised to not only advance the unprecedented opportunities in cancer research, but also apply a health equity approach in order to reach underserved communities and reduce the gaps in cancer disparities, Le Beau said.
“There are new areas in research that are cross-cutting and that we need to bring to bear on the cancer problem, and these include artificial intelligence and data sciences, looking at everything with a lens of health equity, and understanding the social determinants of health,” Le Beau said. “These underlie all of these opportunities.
“Another high priority will be to continue to enhance research and the infrastructure for our research entities across the entire state, and to expedite breakthroughs in prevention and outreach in underserved populations. There are specific areas where we will wish to increase our focus.”
Le Beau served as director of UChicago’s cancer center for 17 years. In 2020, she received the Henry M. Stratton Medal from the American Society of Hematology and the American Association for Cancer Research’s Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements in Cancer Research for her work in characterizing the genetic pathways that lead to hematological malignancies.
Like NCI, which requires cancer centers to work with communities in their catchment areas, CPRIT now has an explicit mission plan for addressing inequities in cancer incidence, mortality, and access to care in the U.S.
In 2016 and 2019, NCI restructured its P30 Cancer Center Support Grant guidelines to require cancer centers seeking NCI designation to demonstrate community outreach and engagement across all aspects of a center’s programs—including basic, clinical, translational, and population research. According to NCI, these guidelines encourage cancer centers to “generate examples of research projects where outreach to and engagement of communities informed and resulted in high-impact science.”
In Texas, CPRIT plays a leading role in supporting prevention, research, and outreach efforts across the state. The institute is charged with developing the Texas Cancer Plan and working with the Texas Department of State Health Services to implement the strategic plan.
“CPRIT has a large minority population, and there are opportunities to address issues related to screening, vaccination, obesity in these populations, and tobacco use,” Le Beau said. “For example, increasing cancer screening, addressing adult obesity and physical activity, youth smoking, and the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products.
“All of these will be important issues for us to address within the state in our outreach and prevention programs.”
Le Beau spoke with Matthew Ong, associate editor of The Cancer Letter.
Matthew Ong: Dr. Le Beau, congratulations on your appointment as chief scientific officer of CPRIT. How’s the transition coming along?
Michelle Le Beau: Well, so far so good. I have to say, I am just delighted and honored to be joining CPRIT.
You’ve been a cancer center director for 17 years—how did you decide that, perhaps, it’s time to do something a little different?
MLB: Yes. Well, I’ve been extremely privileged to have a long career in academia and cancer research at the University of Chicago. Joining CPRIT is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
It gives me the opportunity to contribute to reducing the burden of cancer by catalyzing discovery and advances in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, as well as product development within Texas, which as you know, is a state that’s already recognized as a global leader in innovation in cancer.
If I could elaborate a bit, CPRIT represents a unique and innovative model to advance cancer research in the U.S. It’s the second largest publicly funded supporter of cancer research, and is already a highly successful enterprise.
So, it’s precisely my passion for CPRIT’s mission, and my background as a cancer researcher and a cancer center director that makes the CSO position such a compelling opportunity. It will utilize the entirety of my expertise in cancer research, building research programs, outreach, and prevention to benefit cancer patients and their families.
Second-largest indeed… sometimes we call CPRIT the Texan NCI at The Cancer Letter. What’s your vision for the institute?
MLB: Over the years, CPRIT’s previous chief scientific officers, Al Gilman, Margaret Kripke, and Jim Willson, along with CPRIT’s leadership, have created one of the most remarkable grantmaking institutions in the history of cancer research, and my vision and my intent is to build on their amazing work.
I’m fortunate to be joining CPRIT at a unprecedented time in cancer research, and the extraordinary technologies that we have available today, and remarkable pace of progress in cancer research places CPRIT in an enviable position to escalate its mission as a global leader—by leveraging new priorities, CPRIT’s unique structure and mechanisms to support research, the intellectual talent already in Texas, and the track record in drawing scientific innovation to the state.
Speaking of things that are unprecedented, what are your thoughts about the recent resignations from the Scientific Review Council (The Cancer Letter, Sept. 3, 2021)?
MLB: Well, let me first emphasize that the key principle underlying CPRIT’s mission and the execution of each of its three programs—academic research, prevention, and product development research—is the peer review process, and that ensures scientific integrity and excellence, and ensures that we have the highest impact on reducing the burden of cancer in Texas.
CPRIT relies on top scientists from institutions outside Texas to conduct the peer review process, and I’m enormously grateful to all of these individuals, to all of the members of the peer review panels for the strength of the CPRIT peer review process, and the quality of cancer research recruitment and product development that’s fostered by CPRIT.
At the same time, I respect everyone’s right to take a stance on critical issues of our times, I respect their decision, and I extend my thanks for their extraordinary service to Texas.
Personal standpoints aside, would it be consistent with CPRIT’S mission for the organization to take any stance on issues involving, for instance, in this case, the rights and agency of women?
MLB: CPRIT has a multifold mission as chartered by the Texas Legislature, and this is to invest in the cancer research prowess of Texas universities and research organizations to create and expand life science infrastructure across the state, and to expedite innovation and research, and enhance the potential of breakthroughs in prevention and cancer treatment.
Cancer is a formidable problem, and we need to remain laser-focused on executing this mission.
Are there any areas of unmet need at CPRIT that you’re interested in responding to?
MLB: Yes, and this allows me to comment a bit on my vision for CPRIT, to get back to your earlier question, but let me first answer this by commenting on leadership. In my opinion, the best type of leadership is collaborative, it’s co-creative.
CPRIT has a large minority population, and there are opportunities to address issues related to screening, vaccination, obesity in these populations, and tobacco use, for example.
My predecessor as CSO, Jim Willson, has set an incredibly high bar, because he has done this very elegantly by blending his own exceptional insight and vision with the viewpoints of CPRIT’s advisory and oversight groups, and the expertise of the nationally peer-acclaimed peer reviewers to make the best decisions possible.
So, fighting cancer is a team sport, if you will, and I intend to follow his example. Going forward, I think there are opportunities for strategic deployment of funds in areas of early detection and prevention, childhood cancers, and intractable cancers—with a major emphasis on population disparities in incidence, mortality, and access to care, and particularly those cancers of significance to Texas, such as hepatocellular carcinoma.
But there are new areas in research that are cross-cutting and that we need to bring to bear on the cancer problem, and these include artificial intelligence and data sciences, looking at everything with a lens of health equity, and understanding the social determinants of health. These underlie all of these opportunities.
I think that CPRIT has an opportunity to create greater synergy between its three major programs, the academic research, the product development, and prevention programs. For example, new initiatives might focus on a continuum and on iterative research platforms that blend and form a continuum across all three of these programs.
By creating the evidence base for novel approaches to prevention and early detection, product development research could then provide new methods or devices for early cancer detection, and the prevention program would implement interventions to put these innovative approaches into practice, once they’ve been demonstrated to have clinical utility.
And another high priority will be to continue to enhance research and the infrastructure for our research entities across the entire state, and to expedite breakthroughs in prevention and outreach in underserved populations. There are specific areas where we will wish to increase our focus.
For example, increasing cancer screening, addressing adult obesity and physical activity, youth smoking, and the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products. All of these will be important issues for us to address within the state in our outreach and prevention programs.
As CPRIT develops a more robust portfolio in health equity and studying social determinants of health, what are some engagement and outreach initiatives or efforts that CPRIT can address in the short term?
MLB: CPRIT is charged by the State of Texas to develop the Texas State Plan, and then works with the Department of State Health Services to implement the strategic plan. CPRIT’s role is to help support prevention, research, and outreach efforts across the state.
So, if you look at some of the issues that I mentioned, CPRIT has a large minority population, and there are opportunities to address issues related to screening, vaccination, obesity in these populations, and tobacco use, for example.
Will you also be undertaking potential recruitment efforts at CPRIT?
MLB: That’s an important question, Matt, and you’re alluding to CPRIT’s goal of increasing the life science’s infrastructure in Texas, a critical component of which is recruiting preeminent researchers to Texas.
As of late summer, CPRIT has contributed to the recruitment of 237 stellar researchers and their laboratories to Texas, and this has led to over $1.9 billion in direct follow-on funding to these grantees from other organizations. And this really enables us to expand the expertise and critical mass of science in Texas. However, I need to emphasize that the Texas research institutions and entities initiate and execute the recruitment.
CPRIT’s role is to provide support to recruit these exceptional investigators, and again, this is predicated on the peer review process, but the recruitment is led by the institutions themselves.
Got it. Dr. Gilman, during his time as CSO, set a precedent by delineating clear boundaries and shielding the scientific review process at CPRIT from political influence. Is that quintessential to your ability to run CPRIT?
MLB: That’s a key tenet of CPRIT’s operations. The grant review process is sacrosanct, and there needs to be a firewall, just as NIH does between the grant review process and the program development and operations.
And the structure itself is designed to prevent undue influence from outside sources or from political sources, and I think it has worked very well.
I think Dr. Gilman and Dr. Kripke were incredibly insightful and prescient in setting up the peer review process at CPRIT.
I forgot to ask, will you be taking your lab with you to Texas?
MLB: As you know, I have been a cancer researcher for the last 40 years, and my research has focused on basic and translational research. I focused on elucidating the genetic pathways that lead to myeloid leukemia, and developing a risk-adapted therapy for myeloid leukemias.
And this has really been an extraordinarily rewarding endeavor, in large part because I had pioneering mentors like Janet Rowley, and we were very fortunate to be able to contribute to some of the early work in defining cancer as a genetic disease, and identifying cancer-related genes, and this is work that ultimately helped lead to targeted therapies and precision oncology.
I’ve now elected to wrap up my research endeavors and to pursue another aspect of my career that I’ve also found to be very rewarding, and that is leading enterprises that are dedicated to a common purpose of scientific excellence, and that have a positive impact for cancer patients and their families.
So, that’s the long answer. The short answer is no, I will not be continuing my research laboratory work.
Right, I should believe that as CSO of CPRIT, you might find it challenging to make time to run multiple labs.
MLB: Yes, exactly. I’m really looking forward to focusing my activities on CPRIT.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
MLB: Thank you.