Studying infectious diseases has long been primarily the domain of biologists. However, as part of the Ragon Institute, MIT engineers and physical scientists are joining immunologists and physicians in the battle against HIV, which currently infects 34 million people worldwide.
The mission of the Ragon Institute - launched jointly in 2009 by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), MIT and Harvard University - is to develop new HIV vaccines through better understanding of how the immune system responds to infection.
Bruce Walker, the MGH physician who directs the institute, says it was important to enlist engineers and physical scientists, who have usually been excluded from traditional HIV research, to help in this effort.
''It seemed to me that if we could break down some of those silos, there were probably tools in the toolbox that could be applied to the problem right now that weren't being applied,'' Walker says. ''MIT has brought a lot to the table - not only expertise, but also a different way of thinking about approaching problems.''
The Ragon Institute also encourages its researchers to develop new technology and pursue ideas that might not be funded through traditional channels. These include new materials for vaccine delivery and new technology for studying the virus's interactions with the immune system.
''It has encouraged people, like the engineers here, to start working in areas that they wouldn't have worked in otherwise,'' says Christopher Love, an MIT associate professor of chemical engineering and an associate member of the Ragon Institute. ''That kind of momentum can sometimes be hard to establish. The Ragon has been a catalyst for new research innovations and a very effective one at that.''