On a May afternoon in 2008, Bruce Walker and Terry Ragon ‘71 paid a recruiting visit to MIT. Walker is a Harvard Medical School physician who has studied HIV for three decades; Ragon, the founder and CEO of a software company called InterSystems, was about to bankroll a new $100 million research institute to develop HIV vaccines, with Walker at its head.
About 20 MIT faculty members came to hear Walker and Ragon’s pitch for help with their project. One of those was Arup Chakraborty, a professor of chemical engineering who was intrigued by the mission of what would be known as the Ragon Institute. He had worked in immunology for almost a decade, but he had never delved into HIV research, which had been an insular field. "Moreover, I didn’t know what I could possibly contribute," Chakraborty recalls.
After several brainstorming sessions, Walker thought Chakraborty might be able to get to the bottom of something that had been vexing HIV researchers: people whose immune systems are naturally able to fight off HIV infection are also prone to autoimmune disorders. The phenomenon seemed unlikely to be mere coincidence. Perhaps Chakraborty, who uses computational models to study how cells in the immune system distinguish between foreign invaders and the body’s own cells, could figure out the connection.