Remembering Mark Wainberg

From left: Tun Hou, Max Essex, Phyllis Kanki, ?, Mark Wainberg

From left: Tun-Hou Lee, Max Essex, Phyllis Kanki, William Haseltine, Mark Wainberg

By Martha Henry

Researchers at the Harvard AIDS Initiative (HAI) were saddened to learn that their much-loved colleague Mark Wainberg met his death while swimming in strong surf off Bal Harbour, Florida, on Tuesday, April 11th.

“Mark was an outstanding scientist, a dedicated humanitarian, and a great friend. He had tremendous commitment to solving the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” said Max Essex, Chair of HAI, who knew Wainberg for over 40 years.

Wainberg, 71, was the Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre at the Montreal Jewish General Hospital and Professor of Medicine and of Microbiology at McGill. He and his colleagues were the first to identify the antiviral capabilities of 3TC in 1989 and to test the drug in patients with HIV.

Max Essex and Mark Wainberg
Max Essex and Mark Wainberg

“He was the leading expert in the world on the definition of drug-resistance mutations,” said Essex. “He did cutting-edge research to define how drugs worked, how to detect new drugs, and how they might impact drug resistance.”

Wainberg’s work was not confined to the laboratory. “In the early 1980s, he was one of the people most sympathetic and appreciative of the problems of marginalized communities in the U.S. and Canada. He worked closely with activist groups,” remembers Essex.

From 1998 to 2000, Wainberg served as President of the International AIDS Society. He was also Editor-in Chief of the Journal of the International AIDS Society and Editor of Retrovirology. In 2001, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honor, for his contributions to the study and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Phyllis Kanki, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, first met Wainberg when she was a graduate student in the Essex Lab. They became friends over the years, served together on committees, and would see each other at international meetings.

“He was a superb HIV virologist with an active laboratory with research ranging from basic studies of the reverse transcriptase to viral transmission networks in Montreal,” said Kanki. “But he also had this whole other life of doing work internationally, which started with him running the Montreal AIDS conference and then being the president of the International AIDS Society (IAS).”

“He was the president who really brought the main AIDS meeting to Africa. He did it in Durban. And he did it in Durban when Mbeki was arguing that AIDS wasn’t caused by a virus. Having the meeting there really did make a difference in people’s views, not just Mbeki and the country, but the view that tackling the epidemic had to start on the continent if they wanted to get it done,” said Kanki.

Joseph Makhema, CEO of the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP), also credits Wainberg for bringing international attention to the AIDS crisis in Africa. “Mark was a strong advocate for access to therapy in resource-poor settings and capacity building for clinical research in those settings,” said Makhema.  “It was during his tenure as IAS president that galvanization and advocacy for access to ART gained momentum.”

“He [Wainberg] was very active in trying to get companies to make drugs available for Africa,” said Essex. “He had a lot more influence than some of us because companies knew he had valuable information they needed in the context of defining efficacy of new drugs.”

Botswana was where Iain MacLeod first met Wainberg. MacLeod was a post-doc studying drug resistance in the Essex Lab and arrived at the BHP in early 2010 to continue his research. Essex, Chair of the BHP, and Wainberg were also in Botswana. The three virologists shared a meal at a Chinese restaurant and talked shop.

A few years later, MacLeod contacted Wainberg when he was contemplating a move from academia to biotech to develop an affordable HIV drug-resistance test. MacLeod worried that academics might view a for-profit business as running counter to efforts to provide access to HIV care in resource-limited countries. MacLeod fondly remembers Wainberg’s response: “I’m not a communist. I know that if we’re going to get an HIV drug-resistance test to everyone then it won’t come from academia, it will be through industry.”

Wainberg offered to be on the scientific advisory board of Aldatu Biosciences, the company MacLeod proceeded to cofound. Wainberg advised MacLeod and his partner when they applied for NIH funding and introduced them to contacts at biotech companies working in the HIV diagnostics field.

MacLeod remembers Wainberg as generous with his time and fiercely intelligent. “I’ll miss Mark challenging everyone at conferences and meetings. He could always provide a counterargument to everyone’s work and really get a discussion going.”

“There’s a handful of people that I’ve had a close long-term friendship with in science and he’s certainly one of them,” said Essex, who, along with others who knew Mark Wainberg, will miss him tremendously.