With a little help from my friends

| Written by Scott LaFee
Dr. David Brenner speaking at the 2023 Sanford Burnham Prebys Special Gala

Sanford Burnham Prebys’ latest gala celebrated an old, dear friend, a brand-new vision and a crowd in fab form.

The event began with an evening filled with gratitude, recognition and, well, a look to the future.

On Saturday night, more than 280 friends, faculty and supporters of Sanford Burnham Prebys gathered at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa to celebrate the event’s theme: “A Future Filled with Discoveries and Cures.”

But more specifically, attendees paid homage to two men: philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, whose long and enduring support has helped shape and sustain Sanford Burnham Prebys; and David Brenner, M.D., the institute’s (newish) president and CEO, who is using Sanford’s most recent gift to implement a bold, new strategic plan.

“Denny has always been a friend, guide and mentor,” said Brenner. “He has made much of what I do—what we will do together—possible.”

It was an evocative evening, with sartorially splendid guests arriving to a scene best described as a 1960s-era “lavish London lounge,” featuring vibrant colors and rich materials, roaming magicians; and a strolling trio of trumpet, trombone and tambourine players.

The festivities formally opened with welcoming remarks from Honorary Trustee Malin Burnham, who noted that “the Institute is at a dramatic time and place—with new faces, a new vision and an old friend.”

Malin and Roberta Burnham at the 2023 Special Gala
Malin and Roberta Burnham

Burnham, who has served on the Board since 1982, noted that Sanford, who could not attend the event, was watching a live stream of the event from his home in South Dakota. “He can see and hear us,” Burnham said, waving.

Following dinner, Bill Gerhart, the current chair of the Sanford Burnham Prebys Board of Trustees, stepped up to acknowledge Sanford’s long history of support to the Institute and all of the donors, supporters and staff in the room who “make things happen”; and to introduce Brenner as “a guy who really can make things happen.”

Brenner, who also holds the Donald Bren Chief Executive Chair, spoke eloquently about Sanford before briefly detailing strategic plans for the Institute, one intended to put Sanford Burnham Prebys at the forefront of the current biomedical research revolution.

“Here’s my elevator speech,” Brenner said, inviting attendees to follow along by reading a program insert.

Our Mission

We translate science into health.

Biomedical research is undergoing a revolution, driven by big data, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

We are uniquely positioned to lead because…

We study the toughest diseases: cancer, heart, mind and metabolic.
We are forward-looking, unafraid of change or challenge.
We are collaborative, flexible, multi-disciplinary and team-focused.
We embrace data science.
We promote entrepreneurship.
We are central to a vibrant, local biomedical community.


A key part of the strategic plan, Brenner said, is embodied in the new cadre of young scientists recently recruited to Sanford Burnham Prebys from “some of the best labs at some of the best institutions in the country.”

Their recruitment (and new hires to follow) are the benefit of a $70 million gift from Sanford to create up to 20 new faculty positions in the next few years in diverse research areas including cancer, neurodegeneration and computational biology.

Four of the six new scientists were in attendance: Sanju Sinha, Ph.D., from the National Cancer Institute; Sanjeev Ranade, Ph.D., from Gladstone Institutes; Kelly Kersten, Ph.D., from UC San Francisco; and Xiao Tian, Ph.D., from Harvard Medical School.

Sinha joined the Institute in June. Kevin Tharp, Ph.D., from UCSF, arrives in November. The other four researchers, including Shengjie Feng, Ph.D., from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and UCSF, officially join Sanford Burnham Prebys in January 2024.

Brenner then introduced a special four-minute video: a visual thank-you to Sanford and a visionary peek at the Institute’s next steps and aspirations. The video ended with a standing ovation.

With the lights still dim, the entertainment portion of the evening began: a live reimagining of John Lennon’s beloved 1971 song “Imagine,” dedicated to Sanford and the new strategic plan.

"Imagine there’s no illness
It’s easy if we try…”

“You may say Denny’s a dreamer
But he’s not the only one.
We hope someday you’ll join us
And the world can be as one.”


The Beatles tribute band Abbey Road performing at the 2023 Special Gala
Abbey Road, a Beatles tribute band, provided a music-filled tour of the history of the Fab Four.

Then it was the Beatles’ tribute band “Abbey Road Show,“ a 70-minute set of music and narration chronicling the Fab Four, followed by nightcaps, conversation and thoughts about the next day—when the future begins.

Note: For your own free, handy, wallet-sized mission card or more information about how you can support Sanford Burnham Prebys, please contact the Philanthropy team.

2023 Special gala homepage graphic
Visit the 2023 Special Gala website

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