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The HIV research community is reeling with news of the loss of their colleague, Dr. Joep Lange, who died Thursday when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17 was shot down over Ukraine. Lange and several other AIDS researchers and advocates were on the flight traveling to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, scheduled to start on Sunday.
“In recognition of our colleagues' dedication to the fight against HIV/AIDS, the conference will go ahead as planned and will include opportunities to reflect and remember those we have lost,” the International AIDS Society said in a statement today.
Lange, a Dutch AIDS researcher at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam, had devoted his career to understanding HIV and finding treatments for the disease for more than 30 years, since the early days of the epidemic. He was the former president of the International AIDS Society, a member of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network’s external advisory board and a long-time friend and colleague to many Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center HIV researchers.
“We have lost a major advocate and talented researcher for HIV therapy and prevention to this terrorist act,” Dr. Larry Corey, president and director emeritus of Fred Hutch and principal investigator of the HVTN, said in a statement Friday. Corey worked with Lange for more than 25 years and remembers the AIDS researcher as a leader, advocate and pioneer of many facets of HIV research, treatment and prevention. “He was the best of a scientific advocate; data driven and with a tremendous heart and moral compass.”
Fred Hutch HIV vaccine researcher Dr. Julie McElrath said, “His commitment and untiring effort to improve the lives of those infected has impacted so many people."
Lange was best known for his work developing antiviral drugs for HIV, as well as studies that elucidated how the disease takes its course in the human body, Corey said. He conducted trials combining different antiviral therapies for HIV and was an advocate for combination antiretroviral therapy, an approach that is now the standard of treatment for HIV infection. He also made seminal findings on how to prevent infection of nursing infants born to HIV-positive mothers.
He was an advocate for access to HIV treatment in Africa, where infection rates are among the highest in the world. Lange said in a 2002 statement from the World Health Organization, “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.”
Corey, McElrath and fellow HIV researchers are vowing to continue the work and mission of Lange and other HIV scientists killed in the crash.
“He was an inspiration to our work and we hope to carry on his charge,” said McElrath.
Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel laureate for her role in discovering HIV and president of the International AIDS Society, told reporters at the International AIDS Conference that continuing the conference, and the field’s work, was what Lange would have wanted.
“We have to continue and we have also to have [a] new generation of health professional[s] to move in this period of those who will not be there anymore… because that is, again, the best tribute I think we can give to them,” she said.
Fred Hutch's Dr. Keith Jerome, an expert in viral infections including HIV, echoed that sentiment: “This is a tragedy and we are all devastated by the loss. Our best response is to redouble our efforts against HIV, which is the tribute I think our colleagues would want.”
Although initial reports stated that more than 100 members of flight MH 17 were headed to the conference, that number has yet to be confirmed and incoming president of the International AIDS Society Chris Beyrer Friday told The Washington Post they’d only been able to confirm seven names of conference attendees on the flight.
Jacqueline van Tongeren, Lange’s partner and director of communications at the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development, was also on the plane. Others from the HIV community on the flight include Pim de Kuijer and Martine de Schutter, Dutch AIDS advocates, and Glenn Thomas, WHO media officer.
Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.