attracting talent

With millions in grant funds, this nonprofit is making Houston an irresistible market for cancer researchers

Since 2009, institutions in Houston have employed CPRIT grants totaling more than $390 million to successfully recruit over 125 cancer researchers. Photo via Getty Images

In their bid to attract top-notch cancer researchers, institutions in Houston compete against the likes of Harvard and Stanford universities, and the Cleveland and Mayo clinics. Super-talented cancer researchers typically can choose from among dozens of institutions vying for them.

Yet cancer research centers in Houston and elsewhere in Texas wield a powerful advantage in this contest for talent — money.

As of early November, four cancer research centers in Houston — the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Methodist Hospital Research Institute, and Baylor College of Medicine — had dangled grants totaling nearly $22 million to successfully lure nine high-profile cancer researchers this year to the Bayou City. The nonprofit Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), based in Austin, supplied the grants.

Since 2009, institutions in Houston have employed CPRIT grants totaling more than $390 million to successfully recruit over 125 cancer researchers, according to CPRIT data provided to InnovationMap. Houston has been the beneficiary of about half of all grants awarded to CPRIT scholars in Texas.

This year alone, four CPRIT scholars have landed at the UT Southwestern Medical Center as of early November, three at the Baylor College of Medicine, and one each at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute and MD Anderson Cancer Center. Each of the grants they received is around $2 million or $4 million.

According to CPRIT, Texas boasts a state-funded recruitment program for cancer researchers unmatched by another other state. Wayne Roberts, CEO of CPRIT, says the more than 250 CPRIT scholars recruited in the past 12 years throughout the state "are advancing research efforts, positioning Texas as a leader in the fight against cancer, and promoting economic development throughout the state."

Roberts is former associate vice president for public policy at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

Texans voted in 2007 to create CPRIT and invest $3 billion in the state's fight against cancer. Two years ago, Texans voted to pump another $3 billion into what now is a 20-year initiative. The institute bills itself as the largest state-based investment in cancer research in U.S. history and the world's second largest cancer research and prevention program.

Dr. Helen Heslop, interim director of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, says the CPRIT grants give the cancer center an edge in wooing "highly sought after" cancer researchers, both senior and up-and-coming professionals. But the benefit goes well beyond that, according to Heslop.

"Having a new person who brings new skills and expertise is obviously great for the people who are working very closely with them at, say, our cancer center," she says. "But a lot of these people will also collaborate with other local institutions. … It just enriches the overall social environment between all the institutions."

On top of that, successfully recruiting high-caliber cancer researchers to Houston helps attract even more high-caliber cancer researchers, Heslop says.

Without the CPRIT grants, Houston would be less competitive in the hunt for first-rate cancer researchers, she says.

One factor that makes the CPRIT grants stand out is that they typically last five years, while other types of research grants frequently last only three years, Heslop says. This longer time span enables cancer researchers to undertake creative high-risk projects, offering them "a much longer runway to get themselves established" and then secure their own funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health, she says. As a result, many cancer researchers who earn CPRIT grants wind up staying in Houston rather than being poached by research centers in other cities.

Dr. Qing Yi, director of the Center for Translational Research at Houston Methodist, received a $6 million CPRIT grant in 2018 that brought him back to Houston from the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute. He specializes in research about multiple myeloma, the second most common blood cancer after non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Gen. Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state, was battling multiple myeloma when he died in mid-October due to complications from COVID-19.

Yi says cancer research centers in Texas couple CPRIT grants with their own funding to up the ante in the competition for cancer researchers. This one-two financial punch is "way more generous" than funding offers from cancer research institutions in other states, according to Yi.

For example, the Methodist Hospital Research Institute successfully recruited researcher Yong Lu this year with the aid of a nearly $4 million CPRIT grant, paired with a 50 percent match of the institute's own money. Lu most recently ran a research lab at Wake Forest University's medical school that focuses on a type of cancer treatment known as adoptive cell immunotherapy.

Yi says his own CPRIT grant of $6 million was matched with $4 million from Houston Methodist, giving him a total funding pool of $10 million. Before heading to Cleveland, Yi was a tenured professor of medicine at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, meaning the CPRIT grant paved the way for his return to Houston. The $10 million pot of money "made it very attractive" to accept the Houston Methodist offer, he says.

"CPRIT funding is really crucial for Texas to recruit top-notch cancer investigators into our state. It's one of the best things that Texas has done for cancer research," Yi says.

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Building Houston

 
 

Fertitta and his family have gifted $50 million to UH's medical school. Photo courtesy

As Houston’s most high-profile billionaire and owner of the posh 5-star Post Oak Hotel and Houston Rockets, Tilman J. Fertitta has become synonymous with over-the-top opulence and big-time entertainment.

But the CEO of the massive Feritta Entertainment empire’s latest move has nothing to do with penthouses or point guards, but rather a legacy, game-changing appropriation meant to aid his home state’s health.

The longtime UH board member and former chairman and his family have just pledged $50 million to the University of Houston College of Medicine. In turn, the new medical school has been christened the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine.

The projected school, upon completion. Rendering courtesy of University of Houston

This landmark gift aims to address the state’s critical primary care physician shortage, (especially in low-income and underserved communities), as well as attract innovation-focused scholars, UH notes.

Additionally, the grant is meant to further clinical and translational research, with an emphasis on population health, behavioral health, community engagement, and the social determinants of health, according to a press release.

Here is how the Fertitta family gift will be distributed:

  • $10 million funds five endowed chairs for faculty hires who are considered national stars in their fields with a focus on health care innovation. This portion of the gift will be matched one-to-one as part of the University’s “$100 Million Challenge” for chairs and professorships, doubling the endowed principal to $20 million.
  • $10 million establishes an endowed scholarship fund to support endowed graduate research stipends/fellowships for medical students.
  • $10 million will cover start-up costs for the Fertitta Family College of Medicine to enhance research activities including facilities, equipment, program costs and graduate research stipends/fellowships.
  • $20 million will create the Fertitta Dean’s Endowed Fund to support research-enhancing activities.

No stranger to writing big checks, Fertitta donated $20 million to UH Athletics — the largest individual donation ever — in 2016 to transform UH’s basketball arena into the now high-tech Fertitta Center.

CultureMap caught up with the CEO (who just sold his Golden Nugget gaming for $1.6 billion), best-selling author, and Billion Dollar Buyer to discuss his landmark gift.

CultureMap: Congratulations on this legacy grant, which has been a long time coming. What does this gift mean to you, now that it’s finally official?

Tilman Fertitta: This was a vision of our chancellors and, you know, I’m on my third, six-year term and not been the chairman for eight years — and we started working on this, seven, eight years ago.

To be able to be in the beginning and the nucleus, and the idea, and what we wanted, and to get the approval from Austin—to watch it come to fruition, how often does somebody get to do a naming gift at the same time they had a lot to do with the creation of the school? So, it was very special in my heart.

CM: Many know you as the CEO of a hospitality empire, author, and even TV personality. But not many know of your commitment to healthcare.


TF: I think there’s one thing in this world that we definitely should always be treated equally on, and that's that’s equal health care for all. This medical school will serve the whole community.

We’re trying to recruit students who want to be primary physicians who will take care of the community that we live in. It’s just something that was very important to me in my whole family.

CM: Academia, scholarship, and research aside, this could essentially be looked at as seed capital for a fledgling operation. Is that a fair assessment?

TF: I know where you’re going with this and yes, it’s no different than business.

I have the vision to know that being in nearly the third largest city in America and a top 100 university in the United States — as University of Houston is according to U.S. News & World Report — that I know what this is going to be in 50 years. It’s no different than looking at another business that you start and you can have the vision to see how successful it'll be in the years to come.

Being on the ground floor of the University of Houston Medical School and being a part of it from its inception, and to help the seed money that will attract other money, I know that in the years to come what a special nationwide medical school this is going to be — because it’s in one of the great cities of America.

So, to be a part of it today and still be a part of it when I’m not here 50 years from now, maybe even sooner than that [laughs], you know, it’s going to be something very special to always be attached to.

CM: Other Houston medical schools here have distinctions in pivotal research or groundbreaking procedures. Is there a specific direction you’d like UH Med to take, going forward?

TF: Honestly, you know, what I’ve been saying? There’s a significant shortage of primary care physicians, not only in the country, but in the state of Texas. We ranked number 47th in the nation.

What we need in the state of Texas, as well in Houston and everywhere, is primary care physicians to take care of your everyday people—and to see them to know if you need a specialist.

I hope that this medical school looks back and we see that they’re graduating more primary care physicians than any other university in the United States and that's our goal. We’re going to be a med school of the community.

CM: You have zero problem with issuing directives, Tilman. What’s your message to the first graduating class, the one that will initially benefit from this $50 million gold mine?

TF: Go out and take care of the people.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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