Burnham Snags $50M Gift, Sparks Translation of Basic Science into New Treatments

Big news is out this morning from the Burnham Institute for Medical Research. The San Diego-based nonprofit says it’s getting a $50 million donation from T. Denny Sanford, enough for the whole institution to be re-named in honor of the philanthropist.

The center will now be called the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. That decision was made now that Mr. Sanford, who made his fortune in the private equity business, has committed to donate $70 million to the research center over the past three years. Besides his direct support of the Burnham, the financier gave another $30 million in 2008 to create the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine to support stem cell research in San Diego.

This is really just the latest coup for the Sanford-Burnham Institute, which has been on a roll over the past couple of years. The institute scored a six-year $98 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in September 2008 to establish one of four new drug discovery centers at academic centers around the U.S. Its annual budget has seen double-digit annual increases in recent years, climbing to $154 million. The staff has grown to 1,000 people at campuses in San Diego, Santa Barbara, CA and Orlando, FL. The institute loves to talk about how its scientists were ranked No. 1 worldwide in terms of impact over the past decade, as measured by citations in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

That’s all impressive stuff when scientific publications are the coin of the realm, but the Burnham is also well aware its research has yet to deliver a major breakthrough for human health like, say, Novartis’ imatinib (Gleevec) for leukemia. So over the past year, the center has intensified its push to pursue that lofty goal by hiring two key people: One is Michael R. Jackson, a former Johnson & Johnson drug discovery expert; the other is Paul Laikind, a former biotech CEO, to negotiate more deals with drug companies with the money and expertise to create the next generation of Gleevecs. So the Sanford donation is really about fueling a transformation engine that can help the Burnham cross the gap between basic research and real-world applications.

Paul Laikind

Paul Laikind

“Denny Sanford’s continuing generosity will help us make a greater impact on human health,” said John Reed, the Institute’s president and CEO, in a statement.

As it so happens, I heard about this big donation just as I was sitting down to write a feature about how Burnham intends to do a better job of applying its ideas in the wider world, by hiring Laikind as its new chief business officer. Laikind is a biochemist by training, with a 25-year track record as a biotech startup executive, most recently as the CEO of San Diego-based Metabasis Therapeutics (acquired by Ligand for $3.2 million in October). I’ve written a lot in the past couple years about academic centers around the country trying to do a better job of this notoriously tricky business of relating to the business world, including the University of Washington and The Scripps Research Institute, so I was curious to hear Laikind’s perspective.

Donations like the one from Sanford—spread out over five years in $10 million annual chunks—provide a certain amount of budget stability, and could enable researchers there to get tantalizing early experimental data that can be used to help win further federal grants, and maybe entice … Next Page »

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