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Sanford-Burnham Seeks Improved Pharma Ties with New CEO from GSK

Following an executive search that took about 18 months, San Diego’s Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute named a new CEO today. He is Perry Nisen, a pediatric cancer specialist who specialized in commercializing new drugs as senior vice president of science and innovation at GlaxoSmithKline’s campus in King of Prussia, PA.

The nonprofit research institute is one of the biggest biomedical research institutes in San Diego, and operates a facility near Orlando, FL. Known informally as “the Sanford-Burnham,” the institute has an annual operating budget of about $152 million and ranks among the top U.S. research centers for National Institutes of Health grants. About 80 percent of its 1,067 employees (in both San Diego and the Orlando area) are scientists.

Kristiina Vuori, who served as the research institute’s interim CEO during the search, returns to her role as president, the institute’s No. 2 position, and as a cancer scientist affiliated with the institute’s NCI-designated cancer center.

Nisen takes over the position vacated by John Reed, a prominent scientist who specialized in programmed cell death and cancer. Reed became CEO in 2002, a position he held until he resigned early last year to take over pharmaceutical research and early drug development at Roche.

In a statement released by the institute, board chairman Greg Lucier says, “Under Dr. Nisen’s leadership, Sanford-Burnham will expand its efforts to cross the traditional boundary between academic research and commercialization.” At GSK, Nisen contributed to drug discovery and development programs, participated in key governance, scientific advisory, and investment boards, and helped establish an end-to-end research and development center in China.

Under partnerships that Reed established with Big Pharma partners like Takeda, Pfizer, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Sanford-Burnham scientists conducted pre-clinical research that helped validate prospective drug candidates. Nisen wants to strengthen and expand such collaborative research efforts, and his GSK ties could be helpful on that front.

As Sanford-Burnham’s CEO, Nisen also takes responsibility for realizing the 10-year strategic plan the institute adopted in January, along with overseeing business development and fundraising initiatives.

The new 10-year plan calls for a research model that encourages innovation by aligning biomedical research and translational research with drug discovery and development. At the beginning of 2014, the Sanford-Burnham said it had received a 10-year, $275-million pledge from an anonymous donor to help support the strategy.

The gift was timely, as funding for biomedical research has been declining in recent years at the National Institutes of Health. Nevertheless, federal research grant support still constitutes about 56 percent of the Sanford-Burnham’s $152-million operating budget. State support accounts for 17 percent of the institute’s budget, while philanthropy amounts to about 13 percent. Funding from licensing, other grants, and other revenue sources makes up the remaining 14 percent.