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Larry Tanenbaum, Chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, walks off the court during the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards NBA basketball game in Toronto, December 1, 2010.MIKE CASSESE/Reuters

Larry Tanenbaum was there when the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute opened its doors in 1985 and later spent years overseeing its research, so he knows the value of the work he will be funding as he hands the institute a whopping $35-million gift.

Mr. Tanenbaum is chair of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and he remembers the shock in 2007 when Jason Blake, then a player for the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club he co-owns, was diagnosed with a form of leukemia. The drug that allowed Mr. Blake to fight the disease while continuing to play professional hockey, which is known commercially as Gleevec, was born of a breakthrough by Tony Pawson, a star researcher at the Lunenfeld Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital.

"When Jason was treated with that, he thanked me for my involvement in Lunenfeld," Mr. Tanenbaum recalled.

The $35-million donation from Mr. Tanenbaum and his wife Judy, announced Monday with Premier Kathleen Wynne on hand, is Mr. Tanenbaum's largest single philanthropic gift. It is designed to be a magnet for further giving, with $15 million to be matched by other donors to establish 15 research chairs. The rest of the money will also be endowed to generate long-term funding for the institute's research, which spans diabetes, cancer and maternal health, among other areas.

"Having seen the progress of what discoveries have occurred during that time frame and, you know, the quality of the scientists that we have at the institute, it was the idea that we wanted to perpetuate something like that," Mr. Tanenbaum said in an interview.

The donation is Mr. Tanenbaum's second sizable gift to the Lunenfeld Institute. He has also donated to the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto and the University of Toronto, as well as a number of other organizations.

The renamed Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute ranks highly among the world's cutting-edge medical research hubs. It has an annual research budget of more than $103 million, and stands out for its creative approaches to funding, such as Venture Sinai, in which researchers make competitive pitches to potential donors for funding.

Just last month, researchers from three of the institute's laboratories – Sabine Cordes, Anne-Claude Gingras and Frank Sicheri – published significant findings in the prestigious journal Nature, explaining the workings of a particular gene known to play a role in cri du chat syndrome, a rare disorder that affects a the human brain, face and voice.

"We sort of take it for granted and we think we know how all the diseases are caused and it's just a question of getting better drugs – it's not," said Jim Woodgett, director of research at the institute. "This is going to sound a bit odd, but we have a tremendous amount of ignorance. The more we learn, the more we realize what we don't know."

With time and money, researchers are starting to fill some of those gaps. Rebecca Gladdy, a surgeon and researcher at the institute, studies various forms of sarcoma, the type of cancer that killed Terry Fox. With modern methods for surgery and co-ordinating patient care, Mr. Fox would likely have survived and enjoyed a good life afterward, she said.

"[Mr. Tanenbaum is] supporting a team here that has a goal, and our goal is to really improve just the quality of life," she said.