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‘The most exciting science’: Dr. David Brenner is poised to lead La Jolla’s Sanford Burnham Prebys

Dr. David Brenner will start his new roles of president and chief executive of La Jolla's Sanford Burnham Prebys on Sept. 15.
Dr. David Brenner will assume his new roles of president and chief executive of La Jolla biomedical research institution Sanford Burnham Prebys on Thursday, Sept. 15.
(Courtesy of Sanford Burnham Prebys)

Using his vast knowledge of the brightest minds in La Jolla, Dr. David Brenner is taking on the roles of president and chief executive of local biomedical research institute Sanford Burnham Prebys with an eye on collaboration and innovation.

The longtime La Jolla resident starts the new job Thursday, Sept. 15.

He comes to SBP from across the Torrey Pines Mesa, a stretch of North Torrey Pines Road that is home to several renowned research organizations, having spent 15 years at UC San Diego as vice chancellor for health sciences.

At UCSD, Brenner guided the nearly $2 billion expansion of health sciences that included the opening of the Jacobs Medical Center and the Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute. He also led development of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science.

In addition, Brenner has served on the boards of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology and Rady Children’s Hospital, is an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and meets with scientists at Scripps Research weekly.

He also has a lab for gastroenterology research at UCSD.

Along the way, Brenner has developed relationships with industry leaders along or near “The Mesa.”

“I pretty much know every single institute in this community,” he said, and “knew the ... people whose names are on the door” of SBP, which is named for T. Denny Sanford, Malin and Roberta Burnham and Conrad Prebys.

“This is the most collegial, collaborative place I’ve ever been,” Brenner said of The Mesa. “I think that’s an amazing strength.”

“Someone’s success does not take away from someone else’s. I think the pie actually grows when you get more resources for the community.”

— Dr. David Brenner

Brenner takes over as Sanford Burnham Prebys president from Dr. Kristiina Vuori, who stepped down after serving in the role for 12 years. Vuori will continue as a professor at SBP. Brenner is assuming the CEO role from C. Randal Mills, who left earlier this year to work in commercial science.

Sanford Burnham Prebys occupies a “sweet spot” in the La Jolla biomedical research realm, Brenner said, with a history and a future “in translating basic biology to improving human health. … It’s a really unique niche.”

Brenner said he hopes to continue to foster coordination among the Mesa institutes “so that the La Jolla [and] San Diego biotech community is the most competitive for the very biggest projects, the very biggest grants, the best philanthropy … the most exciting science” in the country.

“I think there are synergies and efficiencies that can be done by coordinating and collaborating in more ways than we’re even doing now,” he said. “We have enough breadth and depth that we can have everything on The Mesa, but we don’t have enough extra money to duplicate things and not be efficient.”

He said he talks to leaders of other local institutes to determine how to share resources.

“I’m a strong believer that the pie is not fixed,” Brenner said. “Someone’s success does not take away from someone else’s. I think the pie actually grows when you get more resources for the community.”

Brenner said he also hopes to drive SBP’s innovation in computational biology — the application of mathematical modeling and data analysis in scientific research — noting that the term is relatively new.

Until just a couple of years ago, he said, “biomedical research was largely qualitative.”

The advance of next-generation sequencing (the ability to take the entire genome in sequence), metabolomics (the large-scale measurement of small molecules in biological systems) or measuring the genetic markers across populations increased the need for computational models.

“Normal mortals like me would not be able to handle these enormous data sets,” he said.

Brenner said engaging the computational biology field will “transform biomedical research. I think the ability to expand and recruit new people [at] Sanford Burnham Prebys really gives us the opportunity to bring amazing people to San Diego to participate in this.”

He said he’ll endeavor “to bring young people from the very best laboratories in the world ... and say, ‘It’s time for you now to have your own program.’”

“I can’t imagine a cooler place and more fun place than La Jolla to set up a lab and join this community,” Brenner said.

— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Mike Freeman contributed to this report.