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Mass. General, MIT and Harvard launch innovative effort to search for AIDS vaccine

Phillip and Susan Ragon Institute will combine medical, scientific and engineering experts to unlock mysteries of the immune system
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The presidents of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University announced today the creation of the Phillip T. and Susan M. Ragon Institute, formed to find new ways of preventing and curing human disease through harnessing the power of the immune system. The initial focus of the institute will be the most pressing global health problem today, the need for an effective vaccine against AIDS. Founded through a $100 million gift from the Phillip T. and Susan M. Ragon Institute Foundation, the Ragon Institute will bring scientists and clinicians together with engineers using the latest technologies in an interdisciplinary effort to better understand how the body fights infections and ultimately to apply that understanding against a wide range of infectious diseases and cancers.

"The Ragon Institute 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," says Bruce Walker, MD, an MGH physician-investigator who is director of the Ragon Institute. "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. 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 professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He has been the director of the Partners AIDS Research Center, which is being incorporated within the Ragon Institute.

Phillip (Terry) Ragon says, "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." Ragon is founder, owner, and chief executive officer of InterSystems Corporation, a multinational software company based in Cambridge, Mass., with offices in 23 countries. 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 Ragons reside in Cambridge.

Administratively based at MGH, 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.

Susan Hockfield, PhD, president of MIT, says, "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."

Adds Drew Gilpin Faust, PhD, president of Harvard University, "What is so extraordinary about this gift - beyond its generosity - is its focus. The Ragons have recognized that the only way the global battle to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic can ever succeed is by solving the basic scientific problems that have thus far eluded our understanding."

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, says, "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."

Adds 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, says, "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, Mass. General; 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.

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