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Scripps can make an astronomical difference

By Howard Goodman
February 10, 2005 - Scripps Florida doesn't have a location. It just has a temporary building and a handful of scientists at work. Yet it's already the sun in the Palm Beach County universe. Money is orbiting around it.

For proof, take a look at Saturday's Leukemia & Lymphoma Society gala. The society ball's planners expect their glittering Wish Upon A Star dinner-dance at Palm Beach's Mar-a-Lago to net more than $1.2 million. That's five times what the annual fete took in last year.

"We never thought we would reach these kinds of numbers," said Caroline Warburton, the society's deputy executive director, who had to buy a nicer dress to match the event's escalating glamour. "We couldn't be more grateful. It's just phenomenal."

What's going on? Is there suddenly a leukemia epidemic and people are mobilizing? Is awareness of lymphoma reaching new heights?

No, although the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is certainly a worthy cause. It aims to find a cure for those dreaded diseases as well as Hodgkin's and myeloma. It helps patients who are stricken with them.

The reason they've become this year's hot charity is because Scripps President Richard Lerner agreed to be the bash's honorary chairman.

As a chemist, Dr. Lerner heads one of America's most respected and prosperous biomedical enterprises in The Scripps Research Institute of La Jolla, Calif. It's home to 2,900 employees, including 270 professors, three of them Nobel laureates. It's the largest institute financed by the National Institutes of Health.

Yet as an alchemist -- one who turns base metals into gold -- Lerner might even be better.

Such is belief in Lerner's Midas touch that a Who's Who of landowners and developers in the Scripps location saga has paid big money for the chance to sit near him at the ball.

One choice table, costing $25,000, was bought by executives of the Lennar-Centex partnership. They're builders with big hopes that county commissioners stick to their plan to put Scripps Florida's permanent home on Mecca Farms, in as-yet undeveloped reaches west of Palm Beach Gardens.

Another $25,000 table was snatched up by S&K Worldwide Realty, representing owners of the Palm Beach Park of Commerce -- I mean, the newly renamed Florida Research Park -- which is vying to be the go-to site if Mecca falls through.

Hospital executives, too, will be spending their Saturday night in the starry-decorated Mar-a-Lago ballroom. The local medical establishment knows that Scripps spawned 40 biotech spin-off companies and brought lots of grant money and drug trials to Southern California. Why not here?

Thus, JFK Medical Center and the University MRI and Diagnostic Imaging Centers each put up $25,000 for the dinner-dance.

Politicians are pledging to be there, too.

Elizabeth Fago, the gala's chairwoman, said it's natural for people to want to associate themselves with Scripps and the medical miracles its research can yield.

An event like this ball "gives people a reality that there's somebody here in Palm Beach County that can actually make discoveries."

Fago, who owns a chain of nursing homes and is a major Republican Party fund-raiser, didn't deny the business angle. "Whether it's for a business affiliation for the future or just being a beneficiary of their science, people want to be near them."

It would be easy to decry some of these contributors for their self-interest, their preening attempts to draw Scripps' attention.

But I prefer to look at it this way: Whatever their motives, they're parting with a lot of money for scientists to battle diseases.

The evening's theme is about wishing on a star. But its real subject is a solar system.

There's a new one around here. And Scripps is at the center.

With this gala, we're starting to see the strength of its gravitational pull.

Howard Goodman's column is published Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at hgoodman@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6638.



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