March 12, 2013
On March 11, the Ragon Institute, funded by "software magnate" Phillip Terrence Ragon, opened a new $30 million research facility that is designed to facilitate collaboration among physicians, physicists, and engineers in developing HIV vaccines and studying TB. The 75,000-square-foot Cambridge, Mass., building, which now houses 175 staff members, is large enough to allow the staff to double in size and to accommodate visiting scientists as well. Philanthropists Mark and Lisa Schwartz will provide $50,000 grants to outside scientists, which will enable them to participate in the Ragon Institute's research.
The institute's director, Dr. Bruce Walker, explained that interaction among disciplines has already resulted in innovative approaches to developing HIV vaccines. Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers used a math model typically used in finance to pinpoint "stable regions" of the HIV virus that can be targeted by vaccines. The Institute plans to test the HIV vaccines using microscopes that display 3-D images, showing how immune cells attack the virus. New technology at the institute also includes cell-sorting machines that can be used to isolate white blood cells from people who have demonstrated naturally occurring HIV resistance.
Although the institute's research is "high risk," Walker emphasized that the Ragon Institute's research will be broadly applicable. Researchers at Ragon Institute are more and more dependent on private donors as federal funding becomes less available from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Whereas NIH funded 33 to 36 percent of grant applications 10 years ago, it now funds only 18 percent of applications. NIH uses a peer-review process to select grant applications for funding. NIH funding for projects at Ragon Institute was cut by five percent in anticipation of sequestration, and funding cuts may be increased by up to 10 percent in the coming fiscal year if sequestration becomes permanent.