AIDS pioneer Mark Wainberg dies in Florida

McGill, the Jewish General Hospital and the global AIDS community lost one of their leading advocates and researchers Tuesday, when Dr. Mark A. Wainberg drowned while on vacation. Wainberg’s research and collaborations on AIDS and HIV, including the initial identification of the 3TC antiretroviral drug, have saved millions of lives around the world.
Dr. Mark A. Wainberg (1945-2017) was a pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher and advocate.

McGill, the Jewish General Hospital and the global AIDS community lost one of their leading advocates and researchers on Tuesday, when Dr. Mark A. Wainberg drowned while on vacation in Florida. Wainberg’s research and collaborations on AIDS and HIV, including the initial identification of the 3TC antiretroviral drug, have saved millions of lives around the world.

Wainberg was the head of AIDS research at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital, Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre, and Professor of Medicine and of Microbiology and Immunology.

In 2015, he was appointed to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in recognition of having “revolutionized our understanding of HIV/AIDS at medical, epidemiological and political levels.”

He was internationally recognized as a leading scientist in the field of HIV/AIDS, and a tireless advocate for the need to improve access to anti-HIV drugs in developing countries. He was well-known for his initial identification of 3TC as an anti-viral drug, in collaboration with BioChem Pharma Inc, in 1989. He made multiple contributions to the field of HIV drug resistance including the identification of many of the mutations in the HIV genome that are responsible for drug resistance.

Dr. David Eidelman, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-Principal (Health Affairs), called Wainberg “an international champion in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

“Mark Wainberg has had an inestimable impact on the lives of millions of people through his transformative research and through his extraordinary advocacy,” said Eidelman. “McGill and the Faculty of Medicine community deeply mourns his sudden passing. We offer our heartfelt condolences to his family and close ones. The world has lost a medical giant, an exceptional mentor and a great man.”

“Dr. Wainberg was a pioneer, both in the laboratory and on the front lines,” said Suzanne Fortier, McGill’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor. “He was not afraid to speak his mind. Millions of lives have been saved because of his deep caring, his progressive social conscience and his scientific brilliance. The McGill community sends its deepest condolences to Dr. Wainberg’s family, and to his many friends and colleagues at the Lady Davis Institute and around the world.”

Wainberg served as President of the International AIDS Society from 1998 to 2000, organizing the XIIIth International Congress on AIDS in Durban, South Africa. It was the first time the congress was held in a developing country, drawing unprecedented international attention to the issue of drug access.

Dr. Mark Wainberg was a passionate AIDS activist as well as a leading researcher. He is seen here taking part in a demonstration by sex trade workers seeking better protection against HIV infection, during the 2006 International AIDS Conference. / Photo: Lise Beaudry

“The drugs are wonderful and getting better all the time. They have transformed what used to be a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition,” Wainberg said in a 2008 McGill News profile. “Unfortunately, this fantastic progress has not been possible for most people living with the disease in developing countries. I’m very adamant about wanting to make that happen.”

“I am an AIDS activist, absolutely,” he said in a 2000 interview. “AIDS is going to be the world’s leading cause of death, so it behooves us all to be AIDS activists.”

In his lab at the Lady Davis Institute, Wainberg conducted cutting-edge research on the mechanisms behind why some HIV subtypes develop drug resistance and some do not. His most recent research focused on the possibility that HIV may not be able to become resistant to certain new compounds, called Integrase inhibitors, that block viral replication.

Wainberg was born in Montreal in 1945. He received a BSc from McGill in 1966, and a PhD from Columbia University in 1972. He did post-doctoral research at the Hadassah Medical School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Wainberg was a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an Officer of the Order of Canada, an Officer of the Ordre National du Québec, an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and a Chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur of France. He served on numerous international committees that advised bodies such as the World Health Organization.

Funeral services for Dr. Wainberg will be held on Friday, April 14, at 1 p.m., at Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem Congregation, 6519 Baily Rd., Côte Saint-Luc. Get more information.

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John Gillard
7 years ago

So saddened and shocked to learn of Dr. Mark Wainberg’s loss. Lady Davis, McGill , and the world AIDS/HIV community has lost a great humanitarian, researcher and incisive thinker. He was an inspirational colleague to those of us at BioChem Pharma. Mark was a fearless advocate and proponent of 3TC in its early days in the clinic, when apparent resistance was developing to the drug. Instead of prevailing disappointment and pessimism, his scientific conviction was that the HIV- resistant 3TC genotype was the advantage which would convey long-lasting sensitivity to other forms of HIV treatment, like protease inhibitors and non-nucleosides.… Read more »

6 years ago

Wow, this is such a loss to biomedical research. My condolences to his family.

Susan L. Edwards, M.D.
6 years ago

I am so sorry to hear of the tragic loss of Dr. Wainberg. I interned at St. Paul’s Hospital in 1988/89, during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The lack of effective treatment at that time, the severity of the disease, and the affected patients, I have never forgotten. His pioneering work in the field, helping to transform HIV/AIDS from a uniformly fatal disease, to a chronic treatable condition, is one of the great feats of modern medicine. Heartfelt condolences to his family.

Sukhvinder Singh
6 years ago

Very sad, shocked to know about this.

Lisa Kuhta
6 years ago

So shocking and tragic! I am still in disbelief. Dr. Wainberg was my virology teacher in microbiology at McGill and was absolutely stellar! Such a brilliant mind. No words to express such a terrible loss for the entire world. My deepest condolences.

Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven
6 years ago

Living and working in South Africa as well as being a McGill graduate means that this loss hits home doubly hard! Dr Mark Wainberg’s outspoken critique of AIDS denialism at a crucial political juncture in South Africa resulted in the Constitutional Court decision mandating the government to provide ARVs to millions of people with HIV/AIDS, effectively averting their death sentence. A moving tribute to Dr Wainberg’s scientific and advocacy contributions can be found here: Hamba khale–you will not be forgotten!