New AIDS institute seeks to find vaccine within a decade

Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently received a $100 million donation to found an HIV/AIDS research institute. Scientists at the newly created Ragon Institute are hoping to develop a vaccine for AIDS within the next decade.

The donation, made by the Phillip T. and Susan M. Ragon Institute Foundation, was the largest gift in MGH’s history and will enable researchers to further delve into the devastating disease.

The presidents of Harvard Medical School, MIT and MGH, along with the Ragons themselves, officially announced the creation of the institute on Feb. 4.

“We are truly inspired by the breadth and depth of the Ragons’ philanthropy that will fuel this groundbreaking research,” MGH President Peter Slavin said of the announcement, according to the Ragon Institute Web site.

The institute will incorporate a cross-disciplinary approach that will allow scientists, clinicians, immunologists and engineers from a variety of backgrounds to work together. Essentially, the Ragons are looking to unite researchers who had previously worked independently.

“Recent scientific advances have brought us closer to the elusive goal of an AIDS vaccine,” Ragon Institute Director Bruce Walker, a physician and investigator at Harvard Medical School and MGH, said, according to the Web site. “But reaching that goal will require broad collaboration to adapt breakthroughs in the physical sciences and engineering to our understanding of interactions between HIV and the immune system.”

Walker, who runs an HIV research center in South Africa, sought out Phillip Ragon and gave him a tour of his facility and of hospitals in South Africa to illustrate the impact a sizeable donation could make.

“Research is where the leverage is. It’s the fulcrum you use if you want to move the world,” Ragon said in an interview with the Harvard Crimson.

Researchers will use 10 different labs, including Walker’s, to work toward finding a vaccine. The institute will be housed at MGH in the short-term and will eventually move to its own building.