Science in session: Sanford Burnham Prebys in La Jolla relaunches G12 speaker forums

Sanford Burnham Prebys president and chief executive Dr. David Brenner speaks about his research on liver fibrosis  Jan. 24.
Sanford Burnham Prebys President and Chief Executive Dr. David Brenner speaks Jan. 24 about his research and the future of the institute.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The medical research campus’s president and chief executive, Dr. David Brenner, discusses his research on liver disease and shares his vision for the institute’s future.


In a forum meant to impart knowledge about scientific concepts and more to the surrounding community, the Sanford Burnham Prebys medical research institute in La Jolla held the first of its G12 speaker events since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The Jan. 24 session featured Sanford Burnham Prebys President and Chief Executive Dr. David Brenner speaking about his research on liver fibrosis and about his vision for the future of the institute. It came just hours after the organization released news of a large gift from billionaire T. Denny Sanford to the institute.

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

Jan. 25, 2023

The G12 events began in 2002, when Sanford Burnham Prebys co-founder Lillian Fishman and her neighbor and friend Reena Horowitz began a monthly discussion group that invited a speaker from the institute to talk to the ”Group of 12” friends — the G12 — about the speaker’s research.

Reena Horowitz, co-founder of Sanford Burnham Prebys' G12 talks, speaks at the Jan. 24 event.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

G12 grew to be a community education event that counted nearly 100 Sanford Burnham Prebys donors, community supporters and more meeting on the institute’s campus. Topics expanded to include a variety with a strong emphasis on science and health.

G12 events are now scheduled quarterly. “Some of the things that are coming out this year are going to absolutely blow your mind,” Horowitz said.

Brenner’s research

Brenner, who took on the roles of president and CEO in September after spending the previous 15 years at UC San Diego as vice chancellor of health sciences, still runs a research lab in gastroenterology.

In his G12 talk, he shared the lab’s work on liver fibrosis and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Fibrosis, he said, is “a pathological wound healing in which connective tissue replaces the normal, healthy, happy tissue, leading to remodeling and to scar.”

Fibrosis can happen in any organ, Brenner said, bringing about new cells called myofibroblasts.

Scientists are trying to figure out whether inhibiting a myofibroblast will prevent fibrosis, he said.

Brenner’s lab is most concerned with myofibroblasts and fibrosis in the liver, “because of all disease burden of fibrosis, the liver ... is by far the most important,” he said. “More patients have fibrous damage to the liver than any other organ.”

In the 20th century, the most important liver disease was hepatitis C, Brenner said, which has “pretty much been eliminated in the United States.”

Dr. David Brenner details his lab's research on liver fibrosis and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Dr. David Brenner details his lab’s research on liver fibrosis and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

It has been replaced in the 21st century by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, he said, which is so named because “it looks like you drink alcohol, but you don’t.”

The disease, caused by a metabolic syndrome, leads to fibrosis in the liver and is now the leading cause of liver failure in the U.S.

In a fibrotic liver, cells called hepatocytes are injured, causing inflammation and leading to the myofibroblasts that cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and hepatitis C.

Brenner’s lab showed through its research that “liver fibrosis is treatable and can be regressed” by changing the diet of mice originally given “a Western diet, which is the equivalent of a Big Mac and a Coke,” he said.

The lab also studied donated livers and a bioprinting mechanism developed in collaboration with San Diego biotech firm Organovo to create purified livers.

“This is our proposal going forward,” Brenner said, “that we can use this very novel 3D printing to develop models of liver disease in a dish and then try new drugs on them to see if this prevents the progression” of fibrosis.

Future of Sanford Burnham Prebys

That kind of innovation, Brenner said, drives his vision for Sanford Burnham Prebys, an institute composed of several scientific centers and an accredited graduate school of biomedical sciences, which this year accepted 19 Ph.D. students who receive training in a lab vs. a classroom.

All components of Sanford Burnham Prebys share technology to “optimize the ability of our scientists to advance research,” Brenner said.

“We want to conduct and translate basic research to improve human health,” targeting the most difficult diseases that don’t have treatments or cures, he said.

Brenner said scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys “devote 100 percent of their time to the research” instead of teaching or serving on committees.

Brenner said his vision for Sanford Burnham Prebys includes continuing to recruit the best scientists from the best labs from the world’s best research institutions.

He also wants to further develop the institute’s translational science, “when you advance something from basic research into clinical care,” he said. “It’s not as well-developed as basic research.”

Clinical research also will undergo improvements to make it more efficient, he said.

Brenner added that he wants to make computational biology — the application of mathematical modeling and data analysis in scientific research — “more readily available.”

“There has been a revolution in biomedical research,” he said, in which physician scientists can generate a terabyte of data, a “tipping point” that needs people to analyze and synthesize the new, enormous amounts of information to ask and answer new questions.

The “second revolution for biomedical research” will be using artificial intelligence to grapple with the big data, Brenner said.

Using machines to help read information doesn’t threaten doctors’ livelihood, he said, but rather improves their abilities. “So my question that I’m asking the faculty, my colleagues is, how do we take advantage of artificial intelligence to advance Sanford Burnham Prebys?”

“This is a far more collaborative, big data, multidisciplinary approach to research than we had in the past,” Brenner said. “We are … situated to be successful.” ◆