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Newly formed Ragon Institute hosts Symposium on Computational Immunology

On Friday, June 12th, 2009, about 180 scientists from disparate fields of medical research, physical sciences, and engineering descended upon the Wong Auditorium at MIT, united to discuss how theory and computation can advance understanding of the immune response to pathogens, and harness that understanding to develop therapeutic protocols for some of today’s deadliest infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS. The Symposium on Computational Immunology was hosted by the Ragon Institute, established in February 2009 to find new ways of preventing and curing human disease through harnessing the power of the immune system.

The day-long meeting was broken into three major areas: basic immunology, the evolution of pathogens and antibodies, and HIV dynamics and vaccine design, with speakers from MIT, Stanford University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Harvard University.
See full schedule.

Terry Ragon and Bruce Walker
Terry Ragon and Bruce Walker,
director of the Ragon Institute

This was the first major symposium hosted by the Ragon Institute. Its purpose reflected that of the institute as a whole: to bring together diverse disciplines, people, ideas and approaches to confront and overcome basic and applied challenges hindering the development of a vaccine against, as Professor Arup Chakraborty puts it, “scourges on the planet.”

“In recent years, theoretical and computational approaches rooted in the physical and engineering sciences have…shed light on basic questions in molecular and cellular immunology and host-pathogen dynamics, “stated Chakraborty, Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, and Biological Engineering  and Ragon Institute team leader, “[Our intention] was to make such synergistic theoretical and experimental research activities more vigorous by bringing together physical scientists, engineers, virologists, and immunologists to think about the basic science that must be understood and harnessed for designing vaccination strategies against HIV and other infectious agents.”

Next steps toward vaccine development are already underway by the institute, including development of a humanized mouse model to predict vaccine induced immune responses in humans, determination of the effector function of immune cells at the single cell level, and focus multidisciplinary studies on persons who control HIV without medication, as well as those with acute HIV infection.

Dr. Bruce Walker, an MGH physician-investigator and director of the Ragon Institute, believes another important step for the institute is to involve more MIT researchers, and to create a cadre of scientists committed to solving the AIDS problem at the cellular level.

“To prevent viruses from getting into cells or prevent progeny viruses from being produced, you can think about the various arms of the immune response: the innate immune response, the adaptive immune response involving antigen presenting cells, B cells making neutralizing antibodies, cytotoxic T cells, T helper cells. Part of the problem in the field has been that, until recently, these have been studied in ‘silos’,” said Walker during his presentation “Challenges and Opportunities in HIV Research,” “There’s been very little integration across these different aspects of the immune response in terms of trying to understand what’s really going on.”

Professor Arup Chakraborty
Professor Arup Chakraborty presents
on “How the T cell repertoire
is designed and its implications
for elite controllers of HIV”


Bruce Walker and MIT Professor Emeritus Herman Eisen
Bruce Walker and MIT Professor Emeritus Herman Eisen