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Saturday April 22, 2017

Researcher was 'a giant of HIV science'

He established Canada's first AIDS lab and, with his team, identified an effective treatment in the drug 3TC

On April 6, at the annual Mark Wainberg Lecture, the namesake researcher quipped, as he did every year, that it wouldn't be a "prememorial" event forever.

"At some point," he quoted friends as saying, "you might not be around any more and then it will really be a memorial lecture."

The audience members gathered at the Canadian Conference on HIV/AIDS Research in Montreal laughed, and none more heartily than the self-deprecating Dr. Wainberg. Then, reflecting on his advancing age, he turned serious and added: "All I can really hope is we'll have a cure for HIV - or some other way of ending the AIDS epidemic - before I'm banished from the planet."

Five days later, the worldrenowned HIV-AIDS researcher and activist drowned after suffering an asthma attack while swimming near his condominium in Bal Harbour, Fla. He was 71.

A molecular biologist, Dr. Wainberg began his research career studying HTLV-1, the first virus shown to cause cancer (adult T-cell lymphoma). The co-discoverer of that virus was Dr. Robert Gallo, who went on to become the co-discoverer of HIV.

Dr. Wainberg, who worked in Dr. Gallo's lab in 1980, shifted his focus to what was initially described as "gay cancer." He established the first AIDS research laboratory in Canada and set to work looking for treatments. In 1989, Dr. Wainberg and his team identified that the drug 3TC (Lamivudine) was effective in slowing the replication of the virus in the body. It became one of the first effective treatments for people infected with HIV, and a cornerstone of what came to be known as antiretroviral therapy.

ART was a game-changer, transforming HIV-AIDS from a deadly infection into a chronic illness for many. But the drugs were expensive and most of the infected lived in the developing world.

That grim reality turned many scientists into activists, Dr. Wainberg chief among them.

That was perhaps not a complete surprise. After all, in 1976, he ran for political office under the banner of the Union Nationale in a historic election that saw the separatist Parti Québécois elected.

One of his few other forays into partisan politics came in 2013, when Dr. Wainberg angrily denounced PQ plans for a "Charter of Values" that would, among other things, ban public employees from wearing religious symbols including head coverings. (An Orthodox Jew, he wore a kippa.)

Dr. Wainberg served as president of the International AIDS Society from 1998 to 2000. He lobbied furiously to get the International AIDS Conference to Durban, South Africa, whose government at the time largely denied that AIDS was a problem.

Dr. Wainberg's plan - to shame then-president Thabo Mbeki into action - worked. He spoke forcefully not only in public, but behind the scenes.

Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, recalls that Dr. Wainberg "told Mbeki to his face that it was shameful that he wasn't offering life-saving HIV drugs to his people."

"He was forceful and unrelenting. If any spoke truth to power, it was Mark," Dr. Montaner said.

The Durban conference is seen as a watershed in turning back the tide of one of the worst pandemics in human history. Prior to the conference, ART was virtually unavailable in the developing world; today, 18.2 million people worldwide take antiretrovirals, almost half of the 36.7 million who are infected with HIV-AIDS.

"When I look back on my career, I always feel that the most important contribution of my life was political and not scientific," Dr. Wainberg said when the AIDS Conference returned to Durban in 2016.

In fact, over time, the two roles morphed into one. "AIDS is going to be the world's leading cause of death, so it behooves us all to be AIDS activists," he said in an interview with McGill News, the university's alumni publication, in 2000.

But, in recent years, he had dedicated himself to the lab again, convinced that advances in genomics could help defeat AIDS.

His work identifying mutations in the HIV genome led him to believe that replication of the virus could be blocked and patients cured of HIV.

Mark Wainberg was born in Montreal on April 21, 1945, to Abraham, who worked for a glassware company, and Fay (née Hafner) Wainberg, who worked in the insurance industry. He attended Outremont High and then McGill University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in 1966. He then completed a PhD in molecular biology at Columbia University in New York in 1972, and did postdoctoral research at Hadassah Medical School of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Wainberg was hired at McGill in 1974 and remained affiliated with the university for his entire career. He was the long-time head of the McGill AIDS Centre and the head of AIDS Research at the Jewish General Hospital's Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research.When news of his death spread, tributes poured in from around the world.

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