Bruce Walker, MD, with Susan and Terry Ragon | Ragon Institute
Bruce Walker, MD, with Susan and Terry Ragon.

When Phillip (Terry) Ragon addressed a room full of scientists, engineers and mathematicians from the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, he shared one of his philosophies.

“I believe if you want to change the world, you need to find the right fulcrum and the right place to put it,” he told them. “In this case, the fulcrum is research and the right place to put it is at the intersection of MGH, MIT and Harvard.”

Terry and Susan Ragon established the Ragon Institute in 2009 with an extraordinary philanthropic commitment. The institute’s vision is to harness the immune system to prevent and cure disease, with an initial focus on the discovery of an HIV/AIDS vaccine. When the Ragon Institute was established, some in the scientific community did not believe an HIV/AIDS vaccine was achievable.

Brittany Bowman, research technician at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, working with tissue samples.
Brittany Bowman, research technician at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, working with tissue samples.

Four years later, the Ragon Institute has made major contributions to the field of HIV research and immunology, and HIV vaccine trials in humans have begun. Thirty-four million people are infected with HIV, but only 8 million have access to the lifesaving drugs needed to treat the infection. Developing a vaccine would save lives and could eradicate the disease. Now, Ragon researchers are also studying tuberculosis, a lung disease that is the leading killer of people who have HIV.

The Densest Square Mile of Innovation

On March 11, the Ragon Institute dedicated its new facility in Kendall Square, Cambridge. Terry and Susan Ragon as well as the presidents of Mass General, MIT and Harvard spoke at the event. A keynote speech was delivered by Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has overseen AIDS research in the United States for the past 30 years.

The new Ragon Institute location at 400 Technology Square places it adjacent to MIT, the Broad Institute and the Koch Institute and a short subway ride away from Mass General and Harvard University. The location has been described as the “densest square mile of innovation on the planet.”

Ragon researchers occupy three and a half floors of open lab and office space. The area houses 12 tissue culture labs, imaging labs, a biosafety level-3 lab dedicated to critical research into tuberculosis and a private room to interview research study participants and draw blood.

Marylyn Addo, MD, PhD, of the Ragon Institute and MGH (center), with graduates of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Dr. Addo mentored one of the graduates.
Marylyn Addo, MD, PhD, of the Ragon Institute and MGH (center), with graduates of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Dr. Addo mentored one of the graduates.

A founding principle of the Ragon Institute is to create a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment where researchers from a variety of disciplines, such as mathematics, life sciences, computational biology, engineering and physics, can work together to solve complex problems.

“The flexible funding allows scientists to make decisions about what they believe are the next most important questions to take forward, which accelerates the pace of research,” Bruce Walker, MD, director of the Ragon Institute, told those gathered at the event. “This is not just about HIV. What we will learn from studying HIV is going to have a tremendous impact on human health by giving us the fundamental knowledge not just to harness the immune system to fight HIV but also to fight breast cancer, prostate cancer and many other diseases,” Dr. Walker said.

Seeing a Culture Devastated by HIV

Peter L. Slavin, MD, president of Mass General, said the Ragons’ commitment to creating the institute has led to dozens of new collaborations with scientists not previously involved with HIV work. He also noted collaborations with institutions in areas most affected by the disease such as in South Africa, with the KwaZulu-Natal Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV and the Doris Duke Medical Research Institute. The flexible funding attracted other donors and helped Dr. Walker recruit new researchers, Dr. Slavin said.

(far left) Krista Dong, MD, of the Ragon Institute and MGH, on a home visit in South Africa.
(far left) Krista Dong, MD, of the Ragon Institute and MGH, on a home visit in South Africa.

Susan Ragon described Dr. Walker as an inspiration and a friend. She thanked him for his compassion for those who have infectious diseases and his perseverance in breaking down the silos in science that had hindered research.

Terry, who attended his senior year of high school in Bogota, Columbia, spoke of his memories of the children he would see in the streets with no clothing. “Why did I have so many privileges and they had none?” he would ask himself. “It was an accident of birth,” he told those gathered.

That philosophy has guided his lifelong interest in helping people in developing countries help themselves. When Terry traveled with Dr. Walker to South Africa, he saw a culture devastated by HIV and realized that it was hard to help people in these countries without first solving the HIV crisis. He realized the best way to do that was through research and developing a vaccine.

Terry adds, “I have a dream that MGH, MIT and Harvard together can — and will — create the future for health care. They are in a unique position to fulfill this vision and working together multiplies their impact. The success of this institute is proof of that.”

Recent Successes

  • Investigators developed an immunization approach that involves placement of a new material that looks like a Band-Aid on the skin to direct the immune system response.
  • Philanthropic funding allowed for the design of a study called FRESH, Females Rising through Education, Support and Health. The program brings 300 women in Durban, South Africa, out of poverty by supporting them in obtaining high school degrees, life skills training and HIV education. If a woman does become infected, investigators will study a blood sample to learn what happens during the first days of infection. This will help guide vaccine design. Dan and Marjie Sullivan and Richard and Lisa Witten have provided significant philanthropic support for this initiative.
  • The Ragon-affiliated program, HIV Pathogenesis Programme in Durban, South Africa, graduated four doctorate and five master’s degree students in 2013. These individuals had been mentored by Ragon faculty both in Boston and in South Africa and will provide critical scientific leadership on the ground in Africa in the coming decades. As part of its dedication to education, the Ragon Institute Training Program also provided 25 promising young scientists with funded laboratory experiences at MGH, MIT, Harvard and other institutions during the 2012 summer season.

Source: Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard

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