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It’s only rock ’n’ roll, but it supports cancer research at Yale

Medicine@Yale, 2008 - May June


A recent gift to support cancer research at Yale seems, at first blush, to follow a familiar pattern: It came from a man who, having parlayed his Ivy League education into a successful career, wanted to make a donation because of academic loyalties he forged long ago.

What sets the donation apart is that, in this case, Yale is the beneficiary of a windfall.

The donor, Cliff Burnstein, has no ties to the university (he went to the University of Pennsylvania). And unlike many philanthropists, his fortune wasn’t made in paneled boardrooms but in concert halls and recording studios.

Burnstein is the co-owner of QPrime, a talent agency that represents Grammy-winning, multiplatinum musical acts like Shania Twain, Metallica, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His $1.5 million gift stems from a connection with Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Jeffrey L. Sklar, M.D., Ph.D., which began in middle school in Highland Park, Ill. The link between Burnstein and Sklar was one of association rather than abiding friendship—they were in the same classes but never bosom buddies—but Burnstein’s eye for talent was keen even then.

“When you know somebody before there is any pretense,” Burnstein says, “in some ways you really know them the best. Jeff was the premier intellect of our class, and that was saying a lot.” Highland Park High School’s Class of 1966 produced a bumper crop of achievers, including ABC investigative journalist Brian Ross; Penn State University President Graham Spanier, Ph.D.; producers/screenwriters Mark Victor and Michael Grais, co-authors of the “They’re heeeere!” catchphrase from the 1982 film Poltergeist; and many others accomplished in academia, business, and the professions. “Everybody in the class said [of Sklar], ‘This is a guy who is going to make his mark,’” says Burnstein. “I don’t think anybody said that of me.”

Keeping tabs on each other through a mutual classmate who had become a psychoanalyst, Burnstein learned that Sklar was doing potentially groundbreaking research at Yale, but that research money was tight. “This is a very bad time for research,” says Sklar, also director of the medical school’s Molecular Diagnostics Program. “The lab made what I think is an important discovery, and I could not get funding to pursue it.”

Sklar says Burnstein “called me up out of the blue” last fall to get details on his research and what it would take to fund it. “I understood about 1 percent of it,” Burnstein says, but “he’s somebody that I trust. I knew him then. I reconnected with him in a way that made me feel that he was very vital and had tremendous amounts to contribute.”

Sklar says his research “challenges a fundamental tenet of cancer biology” because it describes how chromosomal abnormalities contribute to the development of the disease. Whereas the prevailing view holds that these abnormalities create oncogenic genes, Sklar’s lab found that they function more as mimics of a little-studied normal process—or as Hui Li, Ph.D., an associate research scientist who did the work with Sklar, puts it, “It’s a variation on the theme of cancers plagiarizing normal mechanisms in the cell, but in an exaggerated fashion. You could say that cancers are smart but they’re not original.”

Of his gift, which will support Sklar’s lab over five years, Burnstein says that he’s been fortunate and felt it was time to give back. “Jeff’s one of the highest-quality people I ever met in my life,” he says, “and I’m backing him.” And Sklar, though not a regular concertgoer, is urging everyone to see one of Burnstein’s bands. “They’ll be supporting medical research,” he says.