$150 Million Gift Takes Stem Cell Research to New Heights

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From left, T. Denny Sanford, Catriona Jamieson, MD, PhD, and Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla celebrate the establishment of the UC San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Institute, made possible by a historic gift from Sanford

Noted businessman and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford has committed $150 million in new funding to expand and, in some ways, quite literally launch stem cell research and regenerative medicine at University of California San Diego into new spaces and endeavors.

The gift will fund the new UC San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Institute and builds upon a $100 million gift in 2013 from Sanford that boldly established UC San Diego as a leader in developing and delivering the therapeutic promise of human stem cells — special cells with the ability to develop into many different cell types and which, when modified and repurposed, have the potential to treat, remedy or cure a vast array of conditions and diseases.

“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.”

Sanford’s gift to establish the Sanford Stem Cell Institute is the largest single gift to UC San Diego. “This investment enables the team to dream beyond what is possible,” said Sanford. “The sky is no longer the limit.”

In addition to his investment to create the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego Health in 2013, Sanford established the T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion in 2019, which focuses on research into the neurological basis of compassion, with application toward developing compassion and empathy-focused training for future generations of medical professionals. He also recently made a $5 million gift to support the Epstein Family Alzheimer’s Research Collaboration, a partnership between UC San Diego and the University of Southern California to spark new collaborative efforts to discover effective therapies for Alzheimer’s disease.

Sanford was also honorary co-chair of the Campaign for UC San Diego, which concluded in June 2022 having raised more than $3 billion – exceeding its initial $2 billion goal. He was honored as a recipient of the 2014 Chancellor’s Medal, one of the university’s highest honors, in recognition of his exceptional service in support of the campus’ mission.

The Sanford Stem Cell Institute

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Stem cell research will be conducted in a laboratory bay located aboard the International Space Station, pictured here, in low-Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

The new UC San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Institute, under the direction of Catriona Jamieson, MD, PhD, Koman Family Presidential Endowed Chair in Cancer Research in the UC San Diego School of Medicine, will continue three existing stem cell programs at UC San Diego with three new programs.

The new programs to be established with Sanford’s gift 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.

Existing stem cell programs at UC San Diego in the Sanford Stem Cell Institute include:

“We are thrilled to announce the establishment of the UC San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Institute with Denny Sanford’s generous support,” said Jamieson. “This will allow us 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.”

Stem cell research on Earth – and beyond

With three new programs established as part of the Sanford Stem Cell Institute, a key focus of the institute will be leveraging space as a new frontier for stem cell science. 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, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. 

To fuel sustained research and education in this promising area, Sanford’s gift will establish the Sanford Stem Cell Institute STELLAR Endowed Chair in Regenerative Medicine, the Sanford Stem Cell Institute Endowed STELLAR Exploration Faculty Scholars and Fellows Fund, and the Sanford Stem Cell Institute STELLAR Exploration Discovery Fund.

UC San Diego already has expanded its research capacity in stem cell science to space – efforts that will be further amplified with the recent gift.

In late 2021, UC San Diego worked with NASA, Space Tango and the JM Foundation to launch stem cells into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to study stress-induced aging and how stem cells and their progeny transform into pre-cancer and cancer stem cells associated with leukemia and other blood cancers.

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Allyson Muotri, PhD, with human organoid samples

In 2019, Alysson Muotri, PhD, professor of pediatrics and cellular and molecular medicine, and colleagues sent a payload of stem cell-derived human brain organoids to the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting almost 250 miles above Earth to study how these masses of cells organize into the beginnings of a functional brain in microgravity. The first-ever project of its type was dedicated to Sanford, a longtime supporter of Muotri’s work and others.

“When I was designing these experiments, I realized how innovative and cutting edge they were,” said Muotri. “I thought Denny would be proud of this project, and that I should dedicate this first mission to him. Denny has been a cheerleader for the stem cell community. 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.”

Bringing results to patients

Since its inception in 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 (ACTL) service charges and more than $40.2 million in philanthropy – all with the goal of discovering new treatments to benefit patients.

Key successes include new pharmaceutical treatments Fedratinib, which was approved by the FDA for the treatment of myelofibrosis in 2019, and Glasdegib, FDA approved for acute myeloid leukemia in 2018.

Meanwhile, clinical trials are ongoing for Cirmtuzumab, a monoclonal antibody-based drug developed by Thomas Kipps, MD, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Medicine and deputy director of research at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health, and colleagues. Cirmtuzumab targets cancer stem cells and is being tested, alone and in combination with other drugs, to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia and other blood cancers.

Stem cell research at UC San Diego has been a substantial beneficiary of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), 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. Cirmtuzumab is named as a nod to CIRM and its support. In 2020, California voters passed Proposition 14 to continue CIRM operations and funding.