Conrad Prebys donates $100 million to Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla

Philanthropist Conrad Prebys gave the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute $100 million on Wednesday, June 24 to speed the development of drugs and therapies, the latest in a series of huge gifts that have made San Diego a national leader in “translational medicine.”

Prebys has donated more than $250 million for various causes and projects since 2007. The gifts include $45 million for the new Prebys Heart Institute in La Jolla, and $25 million to the nearby Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which does basic research key to drug development.

His latest gift will result in Sanford-Burnham’s name being changed to the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.

Over the past five years, at least $1 billion in large private donations and public grants have flowed to San Diego to help translate new findings into ways to treat afflictions as different as cancer, dementia, obesity, lupus, and auto-immune disorders.

Many donors and public agencies have been pressing scientists to do more, partly because advances in technology have made it fast, easy and inexpensive to sequence a person’s genes, the source of many diseases and disorders.

“We should be doing all we can to shorten suffering and to extend people’s lives,” said Prebys, an 81-year-old cancer survivor who made his fortune in land development and property management. “Sanford-Burnham is the engine that is driving this ‘bench-to-bedside’ work. It’s going to pay dividends for a long, long time.”

The rush for funds

The $100 million donation, which ties for fifth largest in the county’s history, comes days before the National Institutes of Health is expected to award UC San Diego tens of millions of dollars for translational medicine. The grant will help the university open a 365,000 square-foot research center along the I-5 in La Jolla that will house 1,000 workers, including 100 investigators.

The building also will help the campus expand clinical trials, which now involve 16,000 patients. The growth is part of a larger boom; about 1 million square feet in lab space will be built or renovated this year in San Diego, which is home to one of the larges concentrations of scientists in the nation.

“Science for science’s sake is incredibly important, but our goal is to turn these discoveries into new treatments for our patients,” said Dr. Gary S. Firestein, UC San Diego’s associate vice-chancellor of translational medicine.

Sanford Burnham long lived in the shadow of UC San Diego, mostly by choice. The institute, located just north of campus in La Jolla, opted for a low profile as it conducted basic research, along with limited drug development.

That ended in January 2014 with the bombshell announcement that an anonymous donor had given Sanford Burnham $275 million for translational medical research, the largest gift in the county’s history. The institute also announced that it would greatly expand its work in drug development, and that it would do so through partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry.

New CEO

To push things forward, Sanford Burnham hired Perry Nisen, a senior vice president at GlaxoSmithKline, as the institute’s chief executive officer.

Nisen recently arranged for his faculty to collaborate with Eli Lilly Co. on immune disorders and with Takeda Pharmaceutical on heart disorders.

Such work isn’t unusual in La Jolla; local scientists have helped to develop such drugs as Rituxan, used to fight cancer, and Humira, which treats rheumatoid arthritis. But Nisen has moved with great speed while acknowledging that donors and funding agencies want to see results.

“In many ways, it’s show time,” Nisen said. “The science has been grand and the breakthroughs and insights have been terrific. (But) there is also a demand on the behest of patients and providers — and donors and taxpayers — to have impact.”

His colleague, Sanford Burnham President Kristiina Vuori, said, “Things started changing when the Human Genome Project was completed. That brought the opportunities of basic science to the forefront in the minds of average people. They said, ‘Here is a blueprint; now we’ll be able to tell exactly why one person gets a disease and another does not, or what the best therapeutics are for different people.’

“That laid the expectation that it was time to deliver on all of this research that NIH had funded.”

Patient advocacy groups like the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of San Diego are watching closely, hoping for advances.

“Ovarian cancer is the most lethal gynecologic cancer and one of the five leading causes of cancer deaths among women in the United States,” said Peg Ford, the group’s co-founder and president. “We have to support research to provide better treatment and therapies for a community of patients which has seen so little advancement over too many years.”

The key, say scientists, is balance.

“It’s also essential that NIH and others continue to fund basic research as well as translational medicine,” said William Brody, president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. “Some of the biggest and unexpected discoveries come at the intersection of scientific disciplines, particularly in basic research. This foundational knowledge reveals the mechanisms underlying health and disease to provide the basis for new therapies.”

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