Celebrating an AIDS Pioneer

Mon, Apr 30, 2012

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Celebrating an AIDS Pioneer

In the battle against the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, the tireless work of medical researchers is often our brightest source of hope for victory.

Dr. Mark Wainberg, BSc’66, whose research has been leading the charge since the very onset of the AIDS crisis, was recently awarded the 2012 Killam Prize in Health Sciences by the Canada Council for the Arts. The Killam Prize—one of Canada’s most prestigious—is awarded each year to outstanding scholars with exceptional abilities whose lifetime achievements have had significant impacts on both scholarship and society.

Wainberg, past Director of the Lady Davis Institute at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, current head of its HIV/AIDS research axis, and Director of the McGill AIDS Centre, is elated about receiving the prize.

“I’m flattered, honoured and humbled, especially when I see the list of names I was considered among,” he said.

Explaining that the award, worth $100,000, will go into funding his team’s research, improving their facilities and hiring graduate students, he’s most excited about the fact that it will enable him “to fund important projects that might not otherwise get kick-started.”

Funding for AIDS research is much sought-after but often difficult to procure, particularly in comparison to the money available for other medical research, he says.

“If you look at almost any area of medicine, and ask where the private person is most likely to donate, HIV/AIDS is in last place, probably,” Wainberg explains.

“There is no trouble funding cancer research. The average person identifies with cancer research, or heart and stroke research. If you were to consider the money that goes into fighting those diseases as compared to the funding HIV/AIDS research sees, we’re the poor sisters, especially on an international level.”

The Killam Prize is truly coveted among AIDS researchers in Canada. For Wainberg, it’s a huge milestone in a career dedicated to battling a devastating disease.

Wainberg first began his research on HIV back in 1981. Prior to the onset of the crisis, he had been working on mechanisms whereby viruses are able to suppress immune response. He was on sabbatical, working in Dr. Robert Gallo’s lab at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland when the HIV crisis broke out.

“At that point,” Wainberg explains, “moving into HIV/AIDS research became the logical step.”

In the late 1980s, he and his team were one of the first to cultivate the HIV virus in the lab.

“This led us, naturally, to look to discover agents that blocked replication of the virus, which we did.”

That discovery led to his team identifying and developing 3TC, an anti-viral drug that is used to fight HIV and AIDS. Thanks to this enormous breakthrough, and to the other treatments that were developed in its wake, many HIV positive people can now live long, full lives.

“The goal is simple: to convert [HIV/AIDS] to a manageable chronic illness. Here in Canada, we’ve managed to accomplish this.”

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Wainberg has also been an outspoken advocate for important issues related to the AIDS pandemic, such as greater accessibility to antiretroviral medication.

“Unfortunately, while I can say that we have made progress here at home to the point where no one dies from AIDS anymore, on the international scene, the virus is still devastating millions,” he explains.

Emphasizing that ongoing research in the HIV battle needs to focus on the developing world, he explains that lack of access to high quality drugs in any one area will create a ripple effect throughout the world.

“The fact is that this non-parity will lead to issues of resistance, which then becomes a global health issue—the transmission of drug-resistant HIV. Viruses don’t stop at borders.”

What is more, drugs are not a panacea, as Wainberg points out; they carry side effects and other toxicity issues. For this reason, he also stresses the importance of public health and education in helping fight the battle.

“As scientists, we need to do a better job communicating our knowledge, and across all governments in Canada, we need to continue promoting health and giving people accurate information, especially members of our First Nations communities.”

With a Killam Prize under his belt, Wainberg is certainly proud of what he has accomplished thus far, but is also quick to share credit.

“Here at McGill, I’m surrounded by so many examples of scientific excellence. I’m very proud of my colleagues for the stalwart way in which they’ve made headway against this disease and many others.”

Wainberg continues charging full speed ahead in both research and advocacy, still fighting for his primordial goal, which is developing a safe and effective vaccine.

“We have to do much better. In 2012, any new case of HIV is a case too many. “

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