Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection Seed Grants Will Help Crack Mystery of Immune System

Judith and Leslie Denend, MBA '73, PhD '77

At age 40, Leslie Denend finished the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., in 3.5 hours. Before turning 50, he learned that an autoimmune disease of unknown cause, cardiac sarcoidosis, had quietly ambushed him, triggering short-windedness, then arrhythmia, and ultimately congestive heart failure. Ten years later, in 2008, his name was added to the transplant list at Stanford Hospital & Clinics.

Denend runs through these many bullet points that define two decades of his life with the easy authority of a one-time fighter pilot, White House economic and security advisor, and Silicon Valley CEO. But when the Stanford alum, MBA ’73, PhD ’77, gets to that last point he shelves his executive voice and throws a warm look at his wife, Judith, sitting across the coffee table in their Menlo Park home.

Les and Judy tell the rest of the story together. Their world shrank—time became a tormentor. Days dragged into weeks as doctors evaluated donor organs for a match. The patient and his wife—an “unsung hero,” Les calls her—busied themselves with psychological evaluations and other prerequisites.

At last, early one evening, the call came. “We have a heart here,” said the surgeon. “Do you want to come and pick it up?” The Denends laugh thinking back on how it took them more than an hour to get packed and out the door. Around noon the following day, Judy finally felt the weight lift. Good news had arrived from the recovery room. Tension dissolved into relief, Judy said, as her husband strolled a corridor the next day and checked out a few days later. “I felt as good upon leaving as I felt bad upon arriving,” Les said.

Since then, he has been a vigilant mentor for prospective transplant recipients, talking through common fears and describing the advances in research and post-procedure care being made by investigators at Stanford’s Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection (ITI Institute). “The post-transplant challenge is to suppress my immune system to avoid rejection, but not to the point that I am susceptible to every infection,” Les said.

The ITI Institute seeks to harness recent discoveries aimed at attacking serious illnesses, including autoimmunity, infectious diseases, and organ failure. The Denends hope their financial support of the institute’s seed grant program will help add to that body of knowledge through disease-focused studies that emphasize interdisciplinary medicine and leverage the Human Immune Monitoring Center’s efforts to measure a still-mysterious thing. “ITI would love to crack the immune system,” Les said, “especially tests to answer the question: ‘What does a healthy immune system look like?’ ”

As scientists puzzle out the picture, the Denends continue to marvel at the outlook for the next 20 years. “I am a living, walking, healthy example of what cumulative knowledge can do,” Les said.