La Jolla’s Sanford Burnham Prebys adding six scientists in hopes of launching new era of collaboration

(Top, from left) Kelly Kersten, Sanjeev Ranade and Shengjie Feng, and (bottom) Kevin Tharp, Sanju Sinha and Xiao Tian
Sanford Burnham Prebys’ newest scientist recruits are (top, from left) Kelly Kersten, Sanjeev Ranade and Shengjie Feng, and (bottom) Kevin Tharp, Sanju Sinha and Xiao Tian.
(Sanford Burnham Prebys)

The newcomers, brought in with help from a $70 million donation, are versed in different technologies that can be applied to any field, the medical research institute’s leader says.

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The first six of whom the La Jolla-based Sanford Burnham Prebys medical research institute hopes will be 20 new scientists have been recruited, in seemingly record time.

Seven months after local billionaire T. Denny Sanford gave Sanford Burnham Prebys $70 million to help recruit new faculty members to explore cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, a cohort of a half-dozen has been hired, and one has already started working.

The donation was announced Jan. 24 and the institute started looking for recruits soon after.

To hire six people in a matter of months is unusual, said Dr. David Brenner, a La Jolla resident and president and chief executive of Sanford Burnham Prebys.

“It usually takes years and years,” he said. “It was exciting to see this bright group come through. They are coming in from these great institutions … and bring all these new technologies with them. It’s exciting for me because my goal was to bring the smartest, best people from the best labs to San Diego.”

The new hires are:

  • Shengjie Feng is considered an expert in cryo-EM imaging technology, which earned its developers the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry and enables scientists to see the natural structures of proteins, nucleic acids and other biomolecules in high resolution and capture how they move and change as they perform their functions. She currently is a postdoctoral scholar at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and UC San Francisco.
  • Kelly Kersten studies the complex interplay between the immune system and cancer, with a particular interest in the crosstalk between myeloid cells and T cells in the tumor microenvironment, or cells that surround cancer cells or a tumor. She currently is a postdoctoral scholar at UCSF.
  • Sanjeev Ranade primarily researches how certain proteins, called transcription factors, control different types of cardiac cells and how disruptions in cell-to-cell signaling can cause congenital heart defects. He currently is a research staff scientist at Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.
  • Sanju Sinha is a professor in the Sanford Burnham Prebys Cancer Molecular Therapeutics Program and co-inventor of a new computational tool called DeepTarget, which integrates data from genetic and drug screens to comprehensively and quickly characterize cancer drugs’ mechanism of action, or how a drug or substance produces an effect in the body. He previously worked for the Cancer Data Science Lab at the National Cancer Institute.
  • Kevin Tharp, who studies the interplay between mitochondrial metabolism and the physical properties of the tumor microenvironment, aims to develop new therapies that block the metabolic adaptations that cancer cells use to metastasize. He currently is a postdoctoral scholar at UCSF Health’s Center for Bioengineering & Tissue Regeneration.
  • Xiao Tian recently demonstrated that aging is not driven solely by the accumulation of changes to DNA — primarily genetic mutations that degrade and prevent vital biological functions — but rather by changes to non-gene molecules within cells that tell genes what to do with DNA and how to do it. He currently is a research associate at Harvard Medical School.

Sinha joined the institute in June. Tharp will report in November and Feng, Kersten, Ranade and Tian will start in January.
Together, Brenner said, “I think there is going to be amazing synergy between them as a group and them and the community” that will usher in a new era of collaboration.

David Brenner, president and chief executive of La Jolla's Sanford Burnham Prebys
(Sanford Burnham Prebys)

“It was exciting to see this bright group come through. They are coming in from these great institutions … and bring all these new technologies with them.”

— Dr. David Brenner, president and CEO of Sanford Burnham Prebys

“That’s what is unique about this group,” he said. “The different technologies can be applied to any field. Each one has a unique skill set that will be available for everyone in San Diego. Labs in most [research institutions] are siloed and do their own stuff, but this is highly collaborative.”

Sanford Burnham Prebys focuses on researching health issues such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurodegeneration and aging, and metabolism and liver disease. The interdisciplinary approach has the potential to “change the paradigm of how we organize biomedical research,” Brenner said.

With a philosophy that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” Brenner said he hopes that collaborative culture extends to other area research institutions and that San Diego will have regional cooperation to compete with institutions across the country rather than across the Torrey Pines Mesa, a stretch of North Torrey Pines Road that is home to several renowned research organizations.

“It’s a benefit to have amazing people in a short distance because you can get grants,” he said. “Philanthropic supporters like that ... can support multiple institutions at once.”

Brenner already has developed relationships with industry leaders on or near the Mesa after decades at various facilities before joining Sanford Burnham Prebys last September.

He spent 15 years at UC San Diego in La Jolla as vice chancellor for health sciences. He also served on the boards of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology and Rady Children’s Hospital, is an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla and meets weekly with scientists at La Jolla’s Scripps Research. ◆

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