A leading AIDS research center unveiled its new $30 million laboratory building in Cambridge Monday, where it aims to push ahead with efforts to develop an HIV vaccine and to study tuberculosis, which has affected hundreds of thousands of HIV patients in African and other developing countries.
The opening of the Ragon Institute’s new home comes at a difficult moment for AIDS and other biomedical scientists, as they brace for possible cuts in their federal research grants driven by sequestration of the federal budget and shows the growing importance of private support.
The 75,000 square-foot facility near Kendall Square provides three times as much space as the institute’s original offices, established four years ago at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Charlestown campus, with a $100 million gift from software magnate Phillip Terrence Ragon. The MIT graduate also gave the money for constructing and equipping the new lab, which is roomy enough for the staff of 175 to double over the next few years and still leave bench space for visiting scientists.
“We have a significant addition of space to allow other scientists to use this facility,” said Dr. Bruce Walker, the institute’s director, “thereby lowering the bar to allow other people to enter this field of research.”
Outside scientists will be encouraged to do temporary work at the new institute with $50,000 grants provided by philanthropists Mark and Lisa Schwartz as part of their own $15 million gift to the institute.
Wide wooden staircases adjoining three floors of offices and labs were designed to encourage casual conversations between the physicians, physicists, and engineers, who have shared appointments with MIT, Harvard, or Mass. General.
Ragon scientists have already found creative ways to discover more about the wily human immunodeficiency virus, which mutates too quickly to be targeted by traditional vaccines.
Two years ago, MIT engineers working at Ragon used a mathematical model often used in the finance world to locate more stable regions of the virus that could serve as targets for a new vaccine. Vaccines developed from that research could be tested using 3-D imaging microscopes that can show an immune cell in action, attacking the virus.
Million-dollar cell sorting machines designed to identify and pluck out specific immune cells for further study will enable immunologists to study certain white blood cells, recently identified by Walker and his team, that are found in higher levels in those rare HIV patients whose bodies are able to naturally control the virus without medications.
“We believe that everything we’re doing is something that will be broadly applicable,” Walker said. “We want to make fundamental advances in vaccine knowledge that could pay off for cancer vaccines or autoimmune diseases.”
Such research is high-risk, offering a small possibility of high rewards, a basic research strategy that many scientists at Ragon contend has been largely abandoned by the National Institutes of Health.
“None of my new grants was funded by NIH,” said Dr. Sarah Fortune, a Harvard School of Public Health tuberculosis researcher who recently joined Ragon. “I think they’re trying to become less risk-averse, but when the budgets get so tight, it’s hard to be anything except superconservative in that environment.”
Fortune was able to secure funding instead from Ragon and other private foundations to investigate what she called a “countercultural idea” dismissed by many in the scientific community: whether antibodies, the immune system’s foot soldiers, are actually the masterminds behind uncontrollable TB infections that kill 1.5 million people — many infected with HIV — worldwide each year.
After slashing its annual budget by 5 percent last fall in anticipation of the sequester, the NIH has been sending notices to researchers in Boston and nationwide that their continuing grants may be reduced by 5 to 10 percent in the fiscal year that begins in September if the budgetary reduction becomes permanent.
“We do fund projects that are high risk,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who attended the Ragon opening, “but it’s a peer-reviewed process, and sometimes a proposal that’s way out there doesn’t get a good score from reviewers.”
Dr. Daniel Kavanagh, an immunologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Ragon, said he has had grants rejected in recent years despite solid scores from reviewers that would have won him funding several years ago.
Budget cuts have made grants far more difficult to obtain in recent years. A decade ago, Fauci’s agency funded 33 percent to 36 percent of all grant applications that were submitted, compared with 18 percent in the past year.
“That could go down to 16 percent,” he said, if the sequester drags on.
Even with private donors backing Ragon, federal financing for research is still key. If NIH cuts go through next year, “it will probably mean that either we’ll have to cut supplies or we’ll have to cut personnel,” Walker said, “and those will be hard decisions to make.”