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Pioneering HIV researcher Mark Wainberg dies

by Liz Highleyman

HIV researcher Mark Wainberg, Ph.D.
HIV researcher Mark Wainberg, Ph.D.  

Mark Wainberg, Ph.D., a highly regarded clinician and researcher who helped advance HIV therapy and advocated for access to treatment worldwide, died April 11 in a swimming accident in Florida. He was 71.

Mr. Wainberg was a professor at McGill University in Montreal, an investigator at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital, and founding director of the McGill University AIDS Centre. He was a past president of the Canadian AIDS Society and of the International AIDS Society from 1998 to 2000.

"We have lost one of our fiercest champions," IAS President Linda-Gail Bekker said in a statement. "To those of us in the research community, he was the epitome of dedication from the earliest days of the response. The impact of his work both through and beyond his role with the IAS will live on through the millions of people accessing HIV treatment and those of us who were lucky enough to know him."

In the late 1980s Mr. Wainberg was part of the team that determined that the drug lamivudine or 3TC (Epivir) worked against HIV. It was one of the first effective antiretrovirals and is the only early drug that remains widely used today thanks to its minimal side effects. More recently he was also known for his work on HIV drug resistance and HIV cure research.

In addition, Mr. Wainberg was committed to ensuring that HIV-positive people worldwide would have access to effective antiretroviral therapy. He also worked to reduce stigma against and criminalization of people living with HIV.

"Mark is probably best known as a co-discoverer of 3TC, an early, but still very important, HIV drug," Dr. Paul Volberding, director of the UCSF AIDS Research Institute, told the Bay Area Reporter. "But he was also very committed to the overall international effort to control the epidemic. He was a persistent optimist and a friend to so many."

Mr. Wainberg played a key role in bringing the XIII International AIDS Conference to Durban in 2000 – the first time the conference was held in a developing country – putting the spotlight on AIDS denialism and lack of availability of HIV treatment in South Africa. When the conference returned to Durban in July 2016, South Africa had the largest antiretroviral therapy program in the world, treating more than 3 million people.

Mr. Wainberg was born in 1945 in Montreal, where he lived most of his life. He received his bachelor's degree from McGill University in 1966 and his doctorate from Columbia University in New York City in 1972.

Mr. Wainberg died while swimming in rough seas near Bal Harbor, Florida. His son and others pulled him to shore and paramedics attempted resuscitation, but he was pronounced dead at the hospital. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner said he apparently died from an asthma attack. A funeral was held April 14 in Montreal.

Mr. Wainberg is survived by his wife, Susan; sons Zev and Jonathan; three grandchildren; and his brother, Lawrence.

"Mark Wainberg was a giant in HIV science. His work contributed to saving millions of lives," said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe. "UNAIDS and the millions of people living with HIV will mourn Mark Wainberg's passing and celebrate the huge contribution to the response to HIV he made in his life."




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