Prominent AIDS scientist on MH17 partnered with Canadians in pioneering research

WATCH ABOVE: Among the passengers was a a well-known researcher from the Netherlands and former President of the International AIDS Society, Joep Lange, and World Health Organisation spokesman Glenn Thomas, based in Geneva.

Canadian scientist Dr. Julio Montaner can’t remember working in HIV/AIDS research without his longtime peer Dr. Joep Lange being there.

The pair — one Canadian and one Dutch — began researching HIV therapy and prevention strategies over 30 years ago, when the virus was first discovered.

“We walked together in this sometimes difficult fight. We were there when all of this started and for me, he was a personal mentor, support, source of strength,” Montaner told Global News.

“He was an inspiration and pleasure to work with. I have no words to express the pain,” Montaner said from Melbourne, Australia, late Friday night.

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Lange was hailed as a champion in AIDS research around the world. But the leading Canadian scientist in the field says Lange — who is presumed dead in the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 — helped to pioneer the groundbreaking AIDS prevention strategies that Canada is globally renowned for.

Lange, along with dozens of fellow doctors, was heading to the 20th International Aids Society (IAS) conference in Australia.

READ MORE: Researchers heading to AIDS conference aboard zoomed Malaysian jet

The Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was en route to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from Amsterdam. It crashed Thursday with 298 people on board.

The International Aids Society released these confirmed passengers on board MH17:

• Pim de Kuijer, lobbyist Aids Fonds/STOP AIDS NOW!
• Joep Lange, Professor of Medicine, University of Amsterdam and Scientific Director, Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development
• Lucie van Mens, Director of Support at The Female Health Company
• Martine de Schutter, Program Manager Aids Fonds/STOP AIDS NOW!
• Glenn Thomas, World Health Organisation
• Jacqueline van Tongeren, Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development

Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said the medical community is bracing itself for the full list of AIDS conference delegates who were on board the passenger plane.

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READ MORE:  Who are the victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17?

Lange was former president of the IAS, but his work included collaboration with Montaner in Vancouver.

By 1996, the pair co-authored their findings on a “triple cocktail” — HAART or highly active antiretroviral therapy — that’s now gained international recognition.

They were also side by side in advocating for an extremely contentious “treatment as prevention” HIV strategy that’s now become a game changer in the fight against AIDS.

The therapy has been adopted in China, France, Brazil, Spain, Panama and Sierra Leone. Deals are in the works with Australia, Mexico and South Africa. The World Health Organization has even endorsed it.

READ MORE: A made-in-Canada strategy is making waves worldwide – just not in Canada 

Lange also dedicated his career to helping the developing world gain access to antiretroviral drugs, according to Montaner.

Montaner’s most notable memory of his Dutch colleague and friend? It was a 2002 speech: “If we can get cold Coca-Cola and beer to every remote corner of Africa, it should not be impossible to do the same with drugs,” Lange had said.

He championed the cause for patients in Africa, and went on to found a research program — HIV-NAT — that spanned the Netherlands, Australia and Thailand.

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“That was his commitment and his mission in life and he will be remembered for changing the scope of what was possible,” Montaner said.

READ MORE: HIV 30 years later: Experts mark milestones in treatment advances

Montaner, now a United Nations special adviser on HIV/AIDS, called on Lange just last week to head to Geneva to help his team chart the course in HIV prevention strategy for the coming decades.

“When I called, Joep would be there. And when Joep called, I would be there. It’s something we took for granted,” Montaner said.

The Academic Medical Center hospital in Amsterdam said in a statement that two of its staff, Lange and van Tongeren, were believed to have perished.

“Joep was a man who knew no barriers,” the hospital said. “He was a great inspiration for everybody who wanted to do something about the AIDS tragedy in Africa and Asia.”

Nobel laureate Dr. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus and president of the International AIDS Society, paid tribute to Lange in a speech in the Australian capital, Canberra.

“Joep was a wonderful person – a great professional … but more than that, a wonderful human being,” she said.

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The conference is slated to go ahead as planned in recognition of lost colleagues and peers within the medical community, the IAS said in a statement. A tribute is already planned for Sunday.

Montaner will be presenting his findings on HAART therapy in B.C. to his international counterparts. He’s certain it’s what Lange would have wanted him to do.

“I was emotionally in shock and still am. If Joep was here, he would have asked us, ordered us, demanded that we don’t lose focus of the work we have to do,” Montaner said.

“The best way to remember him is to pick up where he left off and make sure we build on his legacy.”

– With files from the Associated Press