Hundred million dollar gift to launch innovative search for AIDS vaccine

7 min read

HMS professor Bruce Walker founding director of new infectious disease institute at MGH

Harvard Medical School professor Bruce Walker, M.D. has been selected as the founding director of a unique new $100 million effort to finally develop a vaccine that can halt the global  HIV/AIDS pandemic which, if it continues unchecked, is predicted to claim an additional 70 million lives by 2020.

Click here to read more about Bruce Walker’s HIV/AIDS work in Africa.

The Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard is being established at Massachusetts General Hospital with a gift of $10 million per year for the next 10 years by philanthropists Phillip T. (Terry) Ragon and Susan M. Ragon. The Institute will bring together the intellectual power of clinicians and scientists at MGH, Harvard, MIT, and other institutions around the world in what Harvard President Drew Faust today described as “an HIV/AIDS Apollo Project,” a reference to the intensely focused, highly collaborative, generously funded U.S. effort in the 1960s that resulted in man’s first landing on the moon.

Speaking today at a Cambridge event announcing the establishment of the Ragon Institute, Faust praised the Ragon’s for exhibiting “a level of understanding – and even daring – that is too rare in the world of philanthropy. I say this because it is the rare individual who understands how knowledge is the greatest of all gifts, for knowledge is the foundation for progress in every field of human endeavor.  And not only will the Ragon Institute increase and strengthen the foundation of knowledge upon which treatments for infectious diseases are based, it will hasten the development of that knowledge by bringing together the very best minds, giving them the resources they need, multiplying and magnifying their efforts.”

“Like the Broad Institute before it,” Faust continued, “the Ragon Institute will bring together intellectual and clinical resources from across Harvard, MIT, Mass General, and Broad communities. It will bring together Boston and Cambridge’s best minds in basic biology, infectious disease treatment, bioengineering, vaccine delivery, and related fields – and it will reach out to experts in those fields around the world. It will accelerate the discovery process, and it will reduce the time it takes to get those discoveries to the people whose lives they can save, and those whose burden of illness they can reduce.”

Institute founding director Bruce Walker said that the new Institute, which will administratively be part of MGH – the home of Walker’s laboratory, “offers an incredible opportunity to transform academic research by integrating fields with tremendous potential synergies that have been separated by traditional boundaries between disciplines and by rapidly funding the most promising ideas.

Click here to see videos about the work of Bruce Walker and other Harvard researchers combating HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

“Recent scientific advances have brought us closer to the elusive goal of an AIDS vaccine, but reaching that goal will require broad collaboration to adapt breakthroughs in the physical sciences and engineering to our understanding of interactions between viruses and the immune system,” Walker continued.  “This institute will let top researchers from some of the best institutions in the world apply their full creative potential to problems of tremendous global importance.”  A leading AIDS researcher, Walker is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and has been the director of the Partners AIDS Research Center, which is being incorporated within the Ragon Institute.

Terry Ragon explained the decision to launch the Institute, saying that “by providing flexible funding and by connecting science and engineering at MIT and Harvard with the research and clinical resources of MGH, we intend to empower many of the world’s best researchers to focus on what they view as the most promising research.

“We hope to engage them in a multidisciplinary collaborative effort for which there may be no greater benefit – curing the ill and saving lives,” said Ragon, founder, owner, and chief executive officer of InterSystems Corporation, a multinational software company based in Cambridge.  InterSystems provides high performance database and integration technologies along with hospital information systems and national health record systems. Susan Ragon is vice president of Finance and Administration at InterSystems. 

The Ragon Institute will link clinicians and scientists with patients to ensure that the research remains highly relevant to human disease.  The Ragon donation – the largest in MGH history – will provide a multidisciplinary team of world-class researchers with support that bypasses the wait time involved in traditional grant funding.  An initial focus will be identifying the effective immune responses in the small but extraordinary group of HIV-infected persons who are able to keep the virus in check without medications and designing strategies that can induce those responses.  Knowledge gained in this search for a vaccine and other immune-based strategies against HIV/AIDS will eventually be applied against other intractable infectious diseases and disorders of the immune system.

Speaking of the Institute, MIT president Susan Hockfield, PhD, said, that “the great medical advances of the next decade will spring from the vibrant intellectual intersection between biology and the physical sciences and engineering. With this farsighted gift, the Ragons have capitalized on the power of that convergence.  The Ragon Institute will draw on the immense research strengths of this region to tackle a disease still causing untold suffering around the world.”

The Ragon Institute has several unique features.   It is mission oriented – distinct from the typical academic approach in which individual scientists work independently – and it includes engineering disciplines, both to facilitate novel experimental approaches and to incorporate fresh ways of viewing complex biological systems.  The institute’s members hope that this new approach, combined with flexible funding, will rapidly advance innovative, interdisciplinary research and help to revolutionize the field of immunology.

One of the Ragon Institute’s key collaborating organizations is the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). The scientific director of the IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Consortium, Dennis R. Burton, PhD, of the Scripps Research Institute in California, said “the Scripps Research Institute is honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with the Ragon Institute, and I am delighted that my laboratory is seen as an integral part of the institute. The Ragons’ commitment and generosity will provide a huge impetus to the challenging effort to develop an AIDS vaccine.”

Added Seth Berkley, MD, president and CEO of IAVI, “Scientists do their best work addressing major challenges like developing a vaccine against HIV when they have secure, long-term and flexible financial support that lets them focus on science, work with different disciplines and quickly change course when science dictates they should. These critical elements form the basis for the generous and far-sighted gift the Ragons have made, and we at IAVI look forward to working together with them and with Bruce Walker and all of his team of collaborators on this very difficult path.”

Alan Bernstein, PhD, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, said “the new Ragon Institute, led by one of the world’s top HIV researchers, offers great promise in accelerating progress towards the goal of stopping a virus that infects one person every ten minutes in the United States and resulted last year alone in the deaths of over two million women, men and children worldwide.”

Other Ragon Institute team leaders include Marcus Altfeld, MD, PhD, MGH; Dan Barouch, MD, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Laurie Glimcher, MD, Harvard School of Public Health; and Arup Chakraborty, PhD, and Darrell Irvine, PhD, MIT.  In addition to other investigators, fellows and students from MGH, MIT, Harvard and its affiliated hospitals, the Ragon Institute will work closely with clinicians and researchers at an MGH-affiliated center in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – at the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic – and genomic investigators from the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.