In 1976, William H. Fishman, Ph.D., and his wife, Lillian, left Boston to found an independent research institution dedicated to the then-new concept of "oncodevelopmental biology"—the notion that the re-expression of embryonic genes might be a mechanism evoked by cancer cells to gain competitive growth advantage over normal cells. The nonprofit La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation was established to investigate the biological roots of cancer with a goal of finding complete and noninvasive cures for the disease.
The Foundation began operations in a leased apartment building on South Coast Blvd. in La Jolla, California. In 1979, Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D., formerly at City of Hope, joined the Institute as Scientific Director. That same year, the Foundation received a 2 year planning grant from the National Cancer Institute, allowing it to expand its research facilities by moving to Torrey Pines Mesa as a neighbor to the Scripps Clinic, Salk Institute and UC San Diego.
In 1981, the NCI awarded a Cancer Center Support Grant (CCSG) to La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation as an NCI-designated basic research Cancer Center. Fishman served as PI of the new CCSG, which has been active since then. Dr. Ruoslahti was subsequently appointed President and CEO of the Institute, and assumed the role of Cancer Center Director upon the second renewal of the CCSG grant in 1989. During his tenure, Dr. Ruoslahti grew the Institute from less than 200 employees to over 500, and the Institute became a recognized world leader in the areas of cellular adhesion and gene regulation. In 1996, the Burnham Institute was named to honor the generosity of Roberta and Malin Burnham and their family.
In late 2001, John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., (then Deputy Director of the Cancer Center) was chosen to replace Dr. Ruoslahti as the President and CEO. The rapid growth of the organization led to the need for a dedicated Cancer Center Director, distinct from the role of President and CEO. In 2002, Robert Abraham, Ph.D, was appointed Cancer Center Director, and he in turn appointed Kristiina Vuori, M.D., Ph.D., as Deputy Director of the Center in 2003. Abraham resigned as the Cancer Center Director in 2005 in order to accept a position at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Vuori was then appointed Acting Center Director in 2005, and the Institute's Cancer Center Director in 2006. In 2013 when Dr. Vouri became the Institute's interim CEO, Garth Powis, Ph.D., was appointed Cancer Center Director and leads the Center today.
The Institute has continued to grow up during Dr. Reed's tenure as President and CEO, both in terms of personnel and prestige. Today, Sanford-Burnham has around 950 employees, of which over 740 belong to the scientiic staff. The Institute currently ranks 4th in the nation in NIH funding among all research institutes, and among the top 20 organizations worldwide for its scientific impact. The Cancer Center, one of only seven NCI-designated Cancer Centers, has grown to 55 full-time faculty members and a total of over 500 scientific staff. In 2008, members of the Cancer Center's four Scientific Programs produced 275 publications and had more than 200 grants, totaling over $80 million per year.