MIT alumnus Phillip T. Ragon ’71 pledged $100 million last Wednesday to fund a multidisciplinary research institute dedicated to developing an HIV vaccine. The Ragon Institute will bring together scientists, engineers, and doctors from MIT, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital under Bruce Walker, an AIDS researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The money will be distributed $10 million at a time over 10 years. It will fund research and pay for a new building in Kendall Square.
Walker’s goal is to muster the physical sciences, technology, engineering, and immunology in a combined approach to battling HIV, he said.
While no one will be packing up and moving labs any time soon, the institute will eventually link dozens of researchers from diverse fields in search of an AIDS vaccine, said Professor of Chemical Engineering Arup Chakraborty. “Bruce Walker had this vision that everyone coalesced around,” said Chakraborty, who also serves on the Ragon Institute’s 6-person steering committee.
According to Walker, the committee plans to build the institute at Kendall Square. Walker said right now the committee does not know how much space the institute will need, but he hopes to begin construction in a couple years.
Ragon told the Boston Globe that he wants researchers to seek out innovative ideas that may seem risky and that would otherwise have a hard time finding funding.
“The problem with funding is that people are conservative when money is tight,” Walker said. “You get funded after you do it. Innovative ideas don’t get funding.”
Chakraborty said that combining resources from different disciplines and institutions makes for a stronger whole.
“MIT brings together engineering, physical sciences, and immunology to develop a very strong program in immunology,” said Chakraborty. “MIT though does not have so much clinical science as Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.”
Professor of Chemical Engineering Christopher Love said that MIT will also contribute its cutting edge technology to the project.
“We have an opportunity to focus on a really substantial problem with a perspective that hasn’t been attempted. That’s how MIT fits into the equation,” Love said.
The steering committee for the institute will be headed by Walker and includes Chakraborty and Darrell Irvine PhD ’00, a professor of Material Sciences and Engineering and Biological Engineering. Also on the committee are Laurie Glimcher, a professor of Immunology at Harvard University; Dan Barouch, a professor in the Division of Viral Pathogenesis at Harvard Medical School; and Marcus Altfeld, a professor at the AIDS Research Center of Massachusetts General Hospital.
MIT faculty who will be substantially involved with the institute include Love; Jianzhu Chen, a professor of Biology; and Hidde Ploegh, a professor of Biology and member of the Whitehead Institute.
Among other research areas, the Ragon Institute plans to explore the immune response to HIV, a process that still holds many mysteries.
Love said that 1 in 300 humans are naturally immune to HIV. These special individuals contract HIV but are able to defend against it and, through some mechanism that controls the virus’ replication, do not develop AIDS.
“Most people with HIV get a progressive infection that keeps going,” said Walker. “Some are infected for 30 years and are entirely well.
Walker believes that these people may hold the key to building an AIDS vaccine. “We are vigorously studying this group of people,” he said.
Ragon and Walker first met two years ago. Walker does some of his work in South Africa where there is an advanced clinical and research site that has saved many lives with its use of electronic medical records. After meeting with a salesman from Ragon’s company, which sells the electronic medical records software, he eventually found himself in Ragon’s office in Cambridge.
A few weeks later, to Walker’s surprise, Ragon came on a trip with him to South Africa to better learn about AIDS victims. The trip deeply affected Ragon, who later agreed to fund a HIV vaccine trial that Walker was running.
Ten months later, Walker met with Ragon to discuss progress on the vaccine trials. But Ragon had something else in mind.
“Ragan interrupted me 15 minutes through and said it sounds like what you need is $10 million a year for 10 years,” Walker said. It was just unbelievable. I had known him about 10 months.”