Katherine A. High, M.D., and Jean Bennett, M.D., Ph.D., accept the inaugural Sanford Lorraine Cross Award on Dec. 4.

Sanford Lorraine Cross Award winners, donors set high bar

December 18, 2018

Two women with a vision to make the blind see have won the inaugural $1 million Sanford Lorraine Cross Award.

Jean Bennett, M.D., Ph.D., and Katherine A. High, M.D., whose work with the RPE65 mutation has reversed an inherited form of blindness, accepted the award on Dec. 4 during a ceremony in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“I want to thank the Sanford Health system for rewarding innovation,” said Dr. High. “There were many days we were discouraged, so it’s so wonderful for an award to be given for people who made it across the finish line.”

Dr. Bennett expressed her gratitude and said that the patients are the real pioneers.

Through a decades-long collaboration, Drs. Bennett and High pioneered the gene therapy for the RPE65 mutation, took it to clinical trials and then received the first FDA approval of a gene therapy for a genetic disease.

Dr. High also co-founded Spark Therapeutics, a fully integrated, commercial gene therapy company working to accelerate the timeline for bringing new gene therapies to market. She now serves as the company’s president and head of research. Dr. Bennett is a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania and a scientific co-founder of Spark Therapeutics.

Watch their journey and meet a young patient who can see again, thanks to their persistence and groundbreaking work.


“They are all winners”

Drs. High and Bennett competed against two other finalists: Brian Kaspar, Ph.D., whose work seeks to cure spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), or floppy baby syndrome; and James Wilson, M.D., Ph.D., who created the vector that carries the gene therapies.

Gene therapy quickly stood out as the field of candidates was narrowed, said David Pearce, Ph.D., president of innovation and research at Sanford Health. Dr. Pearce noted that all four individuals helped lay the groundwork for much of the innovative work that is being explored now.

The finalists presented their work before the Sanford International Board, which ultimately selected the winner.

“No matter who we picked, it was going to be a great winner,” said Andy North, board chair. “They are all winners.”

Read details about the interviews on Sanford Health News.


An evening of celebration

The four finalists were celebrated during an elegant black-tie affair, which brought together the award benefactors, Sanford Health leaders and other dignitaries including: philanthropist Denny Sanford; former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; Monsignor Trafny, head of Science and Faith Department of the Pontifical Council for Culture of the Vatican; and CBS News medical correspondent Max Gomez.

The event opened with music from Grammy and Tony-award winning “Hamilton” performer Leslie Odom Jr. and was emceed by Shankar Vedantam, host of National Public Radio’s “Hidden Brain.”

View a brief video of the evening’s highlights.


Supported through philanthropy

The $1 million prize, to be awarded every other year, is supported by the generous philanthropy of donors to the Sanford Health Foundation.

To date, five families have invested a minimum of $1 million each in an endowment that will ensure the award continues to inspire and reward innovation for years to come:

  • Miles and Lisa Beacom Family
  • Tom and Barb Everist Family
  • Dan and Arlene Kirby Family
  • Kelby and Heidi Krabbenhoft Family
  • Debby Vander Woude Family (Given with love to honor the life and enduring legacy of Dr. John C. Vander Woude.)

Donors who invest $1 million or more are honored as members of the Founders Circle, a distinguished group celebrated for its visionary generosity.

To learn more, please contact Helen Henkin Kluck at helen.henkin@sanfordhealth.org or call (605) 312-6700.


More about the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award

The Sanford Lorraine Cross Award honors medical innovators who push their research beyond the lab, take risks and overcome challenges to realize treatments and cures that are transforming lives today.

The award is named after the Lorraine Cross, a symbol recognized around the world as synonymous with those who act on their passions. Sanford Health uses the Lorraine Cross to symbolize innovation in health care.

Learn more at: sanfordlorrainecross.com.