Philanthropist T. Denny Sanford is donating $150 million for stem cell research that will help people live healthier, longer lives. Sanford’s record gift will fund a new UC San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Institute that will focus on regenerative medicine.
“This investment enables the team to dream beyond what is possible,” Sanford said. “The sky is no longer the limit.”
The $150 million gift – the largest in UC San Diego’s history – builds upon a $100 million gift Sanford gave the university in 2013 to establish the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego Health.
“Denny’s previous generosity spurred discoveries in stem cell research and medicine at UC San Diego that are already benefiting countless patients around the world,” said Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “His most recent gift adds to our portfolio of stem cell research conducted in Earth’s orbit that will help us better understand the progression of cancer cells and aging.”
The new programs that will be funded with Sanford’s gift are quite literally out of this world.
The new programs include:
- Sanford Stem Cell Education and Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research Program (ISSCOR), for stem cell research that will be conducted in a laboratory bay located aboard the International Space Station currently in low-Earth orbit.
- Sanford Stem Cell Fitness and Space Medicine Program, conducting in-depth space fitness and orbital medicine that can benefit both astronauts and people living on Earth.
- Sanford Stem Cell Accelerator, which will support regenerative medicine company development, including contract research in low-Earth orbit.
Exposure to radiation and microgravity in low-Earth orbit can simulate — and speed up — aging in stem cells, as well as their transformation into cancer cells. Space-related research may have applications that create better treatments for various cancers and diseases on earth, including blood cancers, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
UC San Diego already has expanded its research capacity in stem cell science to space – efforts that will be further amplified with Sanford’s gift.
In late 2021, UC San Diego worked with NASA, Space Tango and the JM Foundation to launch cells into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to study stress-induced aging and how stem cells transform into pre-cancer and cancer stem cells associated with leukemia and other blood cancers.
In 2019, professor of pediatrics and cellular and molecular medicine Alysson Muotri, PhD and colleagues sent stem cell-derived human brain organoids to the International Space Station to study how these cells organize into the beginnings of a functional brain in microgravity.
Muotri dedicated the project to Sanford, who had long supported his work. “Denny has been a cheerleader for the stem cell community,” he said. “He is pushing all of us to speed discovery and translate it to help millions of people who suffer from different conditions that could be treated with stem cell-based therapies.”
The institute, under the direction of Moores Cancer Center Director of Stem Cell Research Catriona Jamieson, will run the new programs along with three existing programs – the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center, UC San Diego Stem Cell Program and the Advanced Cell Therapy Laboratory.
Jamieson said the gift from Sanford will allow the university “to keep pace with the growing need for regenerative and stem-cell based therapies and accelerate translational stem cell research and discoveries that will transform human health for years to come.”
ROI for Patients, University
Since 2013, the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego has yielded a three-fold return on investment by obtaining more than $312 million in funding, including $253.6 million in grants, $15.8 million in clinical trial contracts, $2.7 million in Advanced Cell Therapy Lab service charges and more than $40.2 million in philanthropy.
The fund helped develop new pharmaceutical treatments Fedratinib, approved by the FDA for the treatment of myelofibrosis in 2019, and Glasdegib, FDA approved for acute myeloid leukemia in 2018. And Cirmtuzumab, a monoclonal antibody-based drug that targets cancer stem cells and is currently being tested to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia and other blood cancers.
Stem cell research at UC San Diego has also benefited from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state’s stem cell agency, created in 2004 with the approval of Proposition 71. UC San Diego researchers have garnered 116 awards totaling more than $227 million.