Spurred into action

Philanthropist funds new AIDS institute aimed at finding HIV vaccine within a decade

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BOSTON—After witnessing the ravages of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, Phillip T. Ragon, founder and CEO of InterSystems Corp., has donated $100 million toward the search for a vaccine to fight the AIDS pandemic, considered the most pressing global health problem today, affecting up to 30 million worldwide. According to Ragon, if this challenging mission is successful, doors would open for the development of a vaccine empowered to stem the tide of AIDS effectively and inexpensively.

Could it be that some day, contracting AIDS would be as scarce as catching measles?
Medical professionals hope so and believe Ragon's gift will go a long way toward making this possible. 

The money, $10 million a year for the next decade, will go to Massachusetts General Hospital, but will be shared with other research powerhouses, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for the creation of the Phillip T. and Susan M. Ragon Institute, aimed at bringing scientists, clinicians and engineers together to better understand how the body fights infections, according to a joint announcement made Feb. 4.

The goal of this endeavor is to find new ways of preventing and curing human disease through harnessing the power of the immune system.

InterSystems Corp., a multinational software giant based in Cambridge, Mass., has offices in 23 countries, and provides database software to hospitals and other industries. Susan Ragon is InterSystems' vice president of finance and administration.

"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 the most promising research," Ragon said in a press release. "We hope to engage them in a multidisciplinary collaborative effort for which there may be no greater benefit—curing the ills and saving lives."

Ragon was not immediately available to comment on how exactly the donation would be spent or on future commercial opportunities.

However, according to media reports, Ragon said the 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, freeing scientists from chasing down private donors in a tight economy.

It wasn't until Ragon witnessed the ravages of AIDS in South Africa that he decided to invest, according to Dr. Bruce Walker, a MGH physician-investigator who is the 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," Walker said in a release. The leading AIDS researcher has been the director of the Partners AIDS Research Center, which is being incorporated within the Ragon Institute.

Two years ago, Walker heard of Ragon from a database salesman working for Ragon's company in South Africa, where the doctor conducts some of his vaccine research. In May 2007, when Ragon witnessed the ravages of AIDS in South Africa himself, and decided to fund the institute.

When Ragon told Walker of his idea, "It was almost like an out of body experience," Walker says. "The fact that (Ragon's) offer was tied into exactly what we've been trying to do was extraordinary."

An AIDS vaccine would not only help keep the virus in check, but would be relatively inexpensive, Walker says.

"We've been at this for a quarter of a century," he says. "The Ragon Institute money allows us to bring people in from best institutions in the world … and view the problem from different perspectives."

An initial focus will be in identifying the effective immune responses to the small, but extraordinary group of HIV-infected persons who keep the virus in check.
The institute's members hope this new approach, combined with flexible funding, will rapidly advance innovative, interdisciplinary research and help revolutionize the field of immunology.

Dr. Seth Barkley, president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), says he looks forward to working with the Ragon Institute.

"Scientists do their best work addressing major challenges like developing a vaccine against HIV when they have secure, long-term, flexible financial support that lets them focus on science, work with different disciplines and quickly change course when science dictates they should," Barkley says.

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