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Sanford Burnham Prebys aims to recruit 20 scientists with $70 million gift from billionaire T. Denny Sanford

T. Denny Sanford has donated more than $1 billion for various causes across San Diego County.
T. Denny Sanford has donated more than $1 billion for various causes across San Diego County.
(Nadia Borowski Scott)

The money will help the La Jolla medical research institute expand its study of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

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Local billionaire T. Denny Sanford is giving La Jolla’s Sanford Burnham Prebys medical research institute $70 million to help recruit up to 20 faculty members who will explore cancer and the neurodegenerative diseases that rob people of their memories and ability to move naturally.

Sanford, who has a home in La Jolla Shores, has donated about $1 billion for various causes in San Diego County over the years and is now underwriting one of the largest concentrated local science faculty hiring efforts in years. He is a namesake and an honorary trustee of the institute.

The donation, announced Jan. 24, was made at the request of Dr. David Brenner, the former UC San Diego health sciences executive who became president and chief executive of Sanford Burnham Prebys in September. Brenner is known as a “rainmaker” who helped raise $1.5 billion for UCSD over 15 years — about $450 million of which came from Sanford.

The new $70 million gift is meant to reinvigorate the La Jolla institute, whose faculty shrank significantly over the past decade, and to compete for talented young scientists who don’t want the teaching load that comes at universities.

Getting that type of people doesn’t come cheap. It can cost $2 million to $5 million to recruit top junior faculty members and provide them with the staff and equipment they need. It can cost $8 million to $10 million to do the same with an elite senior scientist.

“The sweet spot for us is hiring the best post-docs from the best labs and the best institutions in the world,” Brenner said. “They’ll be doing unimpeded research.

“They’re going to promote and translate biomedical research into improving human health, either through new diagnostics, new therapeutics and insights that will lead to new drug targets.”

At the outset of Sanford Burnham Prebys’ Jan. 24 G12 speaker event, during which Brenner discussed his research and the future of the institute, Brenner said “the biggest reason I’m here is because … [Sanford] continues to support this institute and the next generation of great researchers.”

Brenner then presented Sanford with a thank-you card signed by many Sanford Burnham Prebys staff members and associates and embraced Sanford.

Dr. David Brenner, Sanford Burnham Prebys president and CEO (left), presents T. Denny Sanford with a thank-you card Jan. 24.
Dr. David Brenner, Sanford Burnham Prebys president and chief executive (left), presents T. Denny Sanford with a thank-you card Jan. 24 for Sanford’s $70 million gift to the institute.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Sanford’s gift is “so critical,” Brenner said. “[It] will bring amazing people to Sanford Burnham Prebys from across the world. It also allows us to buy the best technology equipment ... to do the research. And finally, it gives us the chance … to do small studies to show something works,” leading to larger grants.

Like the nearby Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Scripps Research, Sanford Burnham Prebys focuses on making discoveries. But the institutes also have been working harder to make sure those findings get applied, a push known as “from bench to bedside.”

Sanford, 87, has championed that approach for years. His donations include $100 million to UC San Diego in 2013 to help establish a stem cell research center intended to speed drug development.

In 2019, Sanford pledged $350 million to La Jolla-based National University to help it better compete in online education. A year earlier, he gave the San Diego Zoo $30 million to help build a new children’s zoo. ◆

Updates

2:54 p.m. Jan. 25, 2023: This article was updated with additional information and comments.