Since its founding in 1976, the research facility that is now Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute has been rooted in the study of cancer.
The inspiration came from William Fishman, Ph.D., who had just left his post as professor and director at Tufts University, and moved to the west coast with his wife and career partner, Lillian. Both were nearing retirement age, but neither were ready to abandon their investigations of cancer.
With a $180,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the pair leased space in a renovated apartment building and established the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation. Their goal was to develop an independent research institute where scientists would have the freedom, without bureaucracy or politics, to pursue their investigations. Fishman, in particular, wanted to advance his studies in oncodevelopmental biology, exploiting proteins involved in embryonic development as tumor markers. That first year, the entire organization consisted of just five people and the Fishmans had to construct laboratory equipment out of spare parts.
Their work began attracting attention almost at once. In 1979, the NCI awarded the Foundation a two-year grant, allowing it to expand its facilities and move to the burgeoning scientific community on the Torrey Pines Mesa. That same year, Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D., a renowned cancer researcher, joined the Foundation as scientific director.
The La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation soon became a world leader in cellular adhesion and gene regulation. Recognizing its scientific advances, the NCI elevated the organization into its elite group of seven NCI-designated Basic Laboratory Cancer Centers. Dr. Ruoslahti became president and CEO and also assumed the role of Cancer Center director. During his tenure, he expanded the employee roster from less than 200 individuals to more than 500.
In 1996, philanthropists Roberta and Malin Burnham made a significant monetary donation to support the ongoing scientific studies at the Foundation, and to honor them, the organization’s name became the Burnham Institute for Medical Research. Subsequent substantial donations added the names of T. Denny Sanford and Conrad Prebys.
John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., a world-recognized expert in programmed cell death and cancer, took over as president and CEO in 2001. The following year, Robert Abraham, Ph.D., who would found the Signal Transduction Research program at the Cancer Center, became its director. And in 2006, Kristiina Vuori, M.D., Ph.D., an authority on the molecular mechanisms of cancer metastasis, assumed that leadership role.
In 2013, Garth Powis, D.Phil., who led drug discovery and development at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX, was appointed Cancer Center director.
In 2021, Ze’ev Ronai, Ph.D., the Institute's Chief Scientific Advisor and 2016 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Melanoma Research, was appointed Cancer Center director.