How Ragon Institute’s new building aids its mission

On its 15th anniversary, the Ragon Institute celebrates the opening of a 300,000-square-foot building to house its engineers, scientists, and doctors. The Cambridge-based Ragon — a collaboration between Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard — enables cross-disciplinary biomedical research aimed at solving global health problems. We spoke with Ragon Director Bruce Walker about the Institute’s next steps.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

The Ragon Institute was founded to bring about collaboration between scientists, doctors, and engineers. How does the new building facilitate this?

Traditionally, these scientific disciplines have been siloed. So one objective is to bring these different disciplines together, but unless they’re interacting you haven’t accomplished much. What we’ve done is to create an environment where the incentive is to leave your office and go to common spaces that we refer to as collaboration spaces where you have those chance encounters, where the scientists are visible. The Institute is built so that you can see people. It’s got a very large central atrium and catwalks on each level and a spiral staircase, so you know who else is in the building. In my experience, those random encounters are where innovation and creativity are spawned.

“You can work really hard to create something through the application of science and engineering, but if you can’t deliver it to people you haven’t accomplished much.”

Do you see any new disciplines or technologies being added to this collaboration?

We’re all studying how the immune system functions and how it malfunctions. Whether you’re a physicist or a computational biologist or an immunologist, we’re all working toward a common goal of understanding those processes. The immune system is beyond the capacity of the human brain to understand that whole complex system, but it’s not beyond the ability with AI and machine learning. In the new building there will be multiple spaces for computational biologists, AI, and machine learning.

As you celebrate the Ragon’s 15th anniversary, do you see its focus changing?

We have three major programmatic areas now going forward. We have just the beginning of an understanding of how the immune system works, but we know that that the immune system is in every nook and cranny in our bodies and keeping us healthy. In fact, it’s eliminating cancerous cells as they arise. The more we can understand about it, the better we can come up with therapies. So trying to understand the physiology of the immune system is one focus.

Immune engineering is another, and the third is patient-centered immunology. You can work really hard to create something through the application of science and engineering, but if you can’t deliver it to people you haven’t accomplished much. One of the things that we have in the new building is a clinical center. We’ll be able to do patient follow-up right in the institute.

What new challenges will the Institute take on?

A major challenge looking forward is the family of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that those are inflammatory in nature, in other words, mediated in some way or modulated in some way by the immune system. And so neuroimmunology is one of the areas that we’re specifically trying to extend into. We started out 15 years ago as an HIV institute, we rapidly expanded as Ebola and then Zika came along, and COVID-19, influenza, malaria, and in addition to that, autoimmunity and cancer. It’s all under the umbrella of how the immune system functions and malfunctions.

What has the partnership between Harvard, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital made possible?

It has enabled us to implement our strategy, which was to bring together scientists from different disciplines and give them the flexibility to take innovative ideas forward with flexible funding. Traditional funding sources are loath to fund things if they haven’t been shown to already work, and our view is that if we aren’t failing in some projects, we’re not pushing the envelope hard enough. The flexible funding is really critical because it enables us to take an idea and immediately sprint with it, taking high-risk, high-impact ideas forward.

For years when I was working at Mass General, I would have conversations with different people outside of the HIV field and we’d talk about, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to apply your skills to this HIV problem?” And it never went anywhere because we never had funding. We’re enabling those connections to happen by catalyzing them with flexible funding.

How do you see this partnership growing?

We are MGH, MIT, and Harvard, but we welcome people from all the other affiliated hospitals. We collaborate with UMass and Tufts and Boston University.

Our educational mission is not just local, it extends out to other places in the world, particularly South Africa, which has the greatest burden of TB and HIV infection in the world. We partner closely with two research institutes there, and our goal is to transfer the knowledge and technologies that we’re developing to the African continent and to help in training the next generation of African scientists.

We’re in the process of establishing new collaborations in South America and others in Africa. And we are establishing a formal collaboration with a new institute in Australia. Again, we really want to take down the walls.

What difference will this new facility make?

The expanded facilities allow us to cover more dimensions of immunology, recruit more faculty, and provide an expanded number of better-equipped labs to support the scientists. It was built for collaboration, which is the reason that the Ragon Institute was built: to bring together scientists and engineers and medical doctors from multiple disciplines and use their creativity and knowledge in a pooled way to solve some of the biggest global health problems of our generation and future generations.

The Institute also has a childcare center, to support young faculty with families, and educational spaces to teach the next generation of scientists and engineers and medical doctors. We actually overbuilt things, so it’s got a very large biosafety Level 3 facility, which will service people in this incredible square mile of scientific innovation that’s unmatched anywhere in the world.

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