Bigger Money, Bigger Ambitions: A Biomedical Research Institute Moves to the Next Level

Don Soffer and family—the Florida hotel and real estate dynasty behind the famously fancy Fountainebleau Miami Beach resort hotel and much else—have raised their philanthropic profile with a major gift for stem cell research in their home state of Florida.

The Soffer Family Foundation recently gave a whopping $25 million to the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute, based at the University of Miami. It's by far the ISCI's largest donation since its 2008 establishment.

And it's the kind of money that changes the game for a relatively young research center like ISCI, explained founding director Joshua M. Hare, that can enable it to advance from start-up stage to national status as a long-term leader in stem cell research. The ISCI will rename its clinical research building the Don Soffer Clinical Research Center.

"What the Soffer Foundation has done has really catapulted us into the league of the major stem cell institutions in the country," said Hare. "Something like this completely transforms a program like ours into a larger and very sustainable program that can run for years and decades." A few years ago, the Soffers gave $1 million to ISCI.

The new Soffer gift will pay out over 10 years. "So I can look forward to 10 years of constant support that will allow us to build an endowment and a training program, and conduct research," said Hare.

Unlike many other stem cell research centers, the ISCI's focus is clinical research—applying what's already known about stem cells to test actual cures and treatments. In the last few decades, stem cells—with their protean ability to develop into any cell type—have excited researchers and the public with their promise of treating disease and age-related physical problems by regenerating actual tissue and organs, possibly as good as the original parts. Who wants an artificial knee when a simple injection of stem cells could rejuvenate the real one, and provide decades more of pain-free function and sprinting around the tennis court?

But as in much of medical research, the road from Petri dish to your doctor's office is a very long one. So while other top research centers, such as the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, are concentrating on basic science, said Hare, "We felt there was a major gap when it came to developing what's known about stem cells into therapeutic approaches. We decided to take the clinical approach as far as we could."

Initially, the Soffer funding will benefit three areas: One is clinical research studies to treat heart disease by regrowing healthy, beating cardiac tissue to replace the non-functioning tissue scarred during heart attacks. ISCI scientists have already published findings in this area and are conducting Phase 3 studies, the category used to gain FDA approval. 

ISCI scientists are also testing stem cell treatments for age-related issues. "The notion of aging as a treatable condition is new and exciting," said Hare. Aging is the No. 1 risk for many other diseases, so keeping the body younger could eliminate an enormous amount of death and disease.

Other researchers are looking at treatments in sports medicine—not just for pro athletes, but for the millions of weekend warriors, young and old, who blow out their knees on the ski slopes or suffer bad backs and the like.

Our bet is that more gifts will flow to ISCI in coming years. That's the way things often go with research institutes: A big gift like this one from Don Soffer helps a center get more traction with its research, show more results, and achieve more visibility—all of which attract new donors in a virtuous cycle. 

In addition to the Fontainebleau resorts, Soffer and the family's Turnberry Associates have developed many shopping malls, including the Aventura Mall—one of the country's highest-grossing—as well as high-end residential and commercial projects across the country. After graduating from Brandies University, Don turned down an offer to play pro football, opting instead to get into real estate development, starting in 1955. It turned out to be a good decision: The family is now one of the country's wealthiest, worth an estimated $2.2 billion. Don's son Jeffrey and daughter Jackie are co-owners of Turnberry.