A $5 million gift to the Ragon Institute from lawyer Ursula Brunner will establish the Brunner Fund for Medical Discovery, Education and Social Good to support the institute's FRESH Program and capitalize on evolving opportunities. 

Ursula Brunner, a Swiss lawyer who spent her career working for social and environmental justice, made a $5 million donation to the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard prior to her death on July 17, 2019. The gift will establish the Brunner Fund for Medical Discovery, Education and Social Good. This unique fund integrates medical research with social interventions that provide immediate benefit to the patients being studied, furthering Ms. Brunner’s lifelong commitment to making the world a better, more equitable place.

“We are deeply saddened to learn about the passing of Ursula Brunner,” said Bruce Walker, MD, director of the Ragon Institute. “She was a long-time supporter of our efforts to address the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Her incredible generosity has already had a transforming effect on the lives of hundreds and hundreds of young women at greatest risk of HIV infection, providing them a pathway out of poverty, known to be one of the greatest drivers of the epidemic.

“This new fund is a tribute to her legacy,” Dr. Walker added. “Our entire team is profoundly grateful for what it will allow us to accomplish going forward.”

Action Against Poverty and HIV

The goals of the fund are best exemplified by the FRESH (Females Rising through Education, Support and Health) Study, which was initiated in 2012 with a gift from Ms. Brunner. Each month it enrolls a new group of 30 women, aged 18-24, who are at high risk of HIV infection due to factors that include poverty, economic dependence, and lack of empowerment. Participants come to the clinic twice per week for 9 months, and have their finger pricked each time to check for HIV infection before attending an empowerment and life-skills training class, together with computer lessons and job readiness training for the participants who for the most part have never had a job. The goals are twofold: lifting the women out of poverty that drives HIV risk and understanding from those who become infected how the battle with HIV is won or lost.

The scientific discoveries and educational opportunities that have come from the FRESH study have been remarkable. And the empowerment program has been transformational — over 80% of the more that 1,200 young women to complete the program by spring 2019 have been placed in jobs, internships or returned to school. This unique pairing of science with a pathway out of poverty would not have be possible without philanthropic support, and this gift from Ms. Brunner ensures that this program will continue to have impact long into the future.

“We are so blessed to have had Ursula’s support to keep this program going, and to expand its scope” says Krista Dong, MD, the clinical director of FRESH. “We will get up every day knowing that our work is not only helping to end the HIV epidemic but is also creating unprecedented opportunities for young women in desperate need.”

Read more about the work of the Ragon Institute:
Ragon Institute: Harnessing the Power of Human Immunity
Ragon Institute Study Helps Advance Work on HIV Vaccine
Mass General Receives $200 Million for Ragon Institute

Ragon Institute Collaboration

The Ragon Institute, established in 2009, has developed a uniquely catalytic collaborative platform in which scientists, engineers and clinicians from different disciplines join forces, breaking down the usual academic silos and thereby allowing them to apply all available knowledge to solving medical problems of major global importance. The main focus of this research is learning from patients; the broad goal of the Brunner Fund will be to ensure that the creation of scientific knowledge provides immediate benefit to patients, while at the same time serving as a training platform for the next generation of scientific leaders, particularly in Africa.

The Brunner Fund has established a donation page to accept targeted donations from others who may want to support its mission.

To learn about other ways to make a donation, such as by bank wire or securities transfer, please contact us.

This story was originally published on the Ragon Institute website.