Sanford Burnham Prebys to recruit 20 elite scientists with $70 million gift from billionaire Denny Sanford

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

The money will help the private La Jolla institute expand its study of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons


A La Jolla billionaire gave the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute $70 million Tuesday to recruit 20 faculty who will explore cancer, the nation’s second largest killer, and the neurodegenerative diseases that rob people of their memories and ability to move naturally.

The gift came from T. Denny Sanford, who has donated about $1 billion for various causes in San Diego County over the years and is now underwriting one of the largest concentrated science faculty hiring binges to occur locally in years. He is an honorary trustee and a namesake of the institute.

The donation was made at the request of David Brenner, the former UC San Diego health sciences executive who became president of Sanford Burnham Prebys last fall. Brenner is a well-known “rainmaker” who helped raise $1.5 billion for the university over 15 years, about $450 million 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 these type of people doesn’t come cheap. It can cost $2 million to $5 million to recruit top junior faculty 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 told the Union-Tribune. “They’ll be doing unimpeded research.

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

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

The 87-year-old Sanford, who has a home in La Jolla Shores, has championed that approach for years. His donations include the $100 million he gave UC San Diego in 2013 to help establish a stem cell research center helping speed drug development.

He has spread his money around. In 2019, Sanford pledged $350 million to National University to help the school better compete in online education. A year earlier, he gave the San Diego Zoo $30 million to help build a new children’s zoo.