Investigators specializing in HIV/AIDS research today mourned the loss of a reported 100 researchers who were among the passengers killed in yesterday’s crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Among the first confirmed deaths following the crash was that of Joep Lange, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Academic Medical Center (AMC) of the University of Amsterdam, where he headed the Department of Global Health.
“He was one of the most energetic, dedicated investigators in the field of HIV, particularly with a focus on developing country issues,” H. Clifford Lane, M.D., deputy director for clinical research and special projects for NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told GEN this morning. “Throughout the NIAID, throughout the NIH, this is a tragic loss. Joep and his colleagues will be greatly missed [in terms of] the things that they could have done. This is a severe blow to the field. There is no question about that.”
That blow, Dr. Lane added, will be tempered over time: “What it does is, it makes people who work in this field want to rededicate themselves to be doing the right things, and to be focusing on the important issues.”
“One of things about a tragedy like this is that it makes you re-examine the things you’re doing. You make sure you’re spending your time on things that are indeed important. You don’t want to let yourself get distracted by the issues that aren’t of substance. And Joep was someone who always focused on substance, as did his colleagues as well,” Dr. Lane said. “They have always been at the forefront of AIDS research. They were there from the beginning of the field to the present day.”
AIDS research, he noted, “is multidisciplinary, encompassing different aspects ranging from policy to basic research. And Joep was one of the people who could tie all of those areas together. He was a great leader in that regard.”
Dr. Lange and the other researchers—reported at “about 100” by The Sydney Morning Herald and at 108 by The Australian—were on their way to the 20th International AIDS Conference, set for this weekend in Melbourne, Australia. They were on board flight MH17, which was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, with 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board, according to numerous news reports.
The jet crashed in disputed territory near the Ukraine-Russian border following an explosion. While some news reports attributed the explosion to the Boeing 777 being shot down by a surface-to-air missile, that and other details could not be confirmed soon after the crash.
“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 conference organizer, the International AIDS Society (IAS) said in a statement posted on its website.
Dr. Lange was a former president of the IAS, and had co-authored numerous studies on HIV/AIDS over more than two decades.
In 2012, for example, Dr. Lange was among co-authors of a study offering evidence that the presence of the potential N-glycosylation site (PNGS) N339 and absence of PNGS-N295 in the envelope glycoprotein 120 confers an advantage to HIV-1 when considering mother-to-child transmission of the virus. The research team studied a cohort of 30 mothers from Rwanda infected with HIV-1 subtype A or C viruses. of whom seven infected their children either during gestation or soon after birth. The results were reported in AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses, published by GEN publisher Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
In a 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Lange and co-authors found that the addition of enfuvirtide to an optimized antiretroviral regimen provided significant viral suppression and immunologic benefit over a 24-week period in HIV-1–infected patients who had previously received multiple antiretroviral drugs.
Among the co-authors of the 2003 study was David D. Ho, M.D., scientific director, CEO and Irene Diamond Professor at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, an affiliate of The Rockefeller University. Today, in a statement released by the Center, Dr. Ho remembered Dr. Lange as a longtime friend as well as a respected researcher.
“He was a pioneering clinical investigator who worked on HIV and TB; he was an important opinion leader who had led an AIDS unit at the WHO as well as the International AIDS Society; and he was a tireless advocate for people afflicted by the AIDS pandemic. Most of all, he was a dear friend,” Dr. Ho stated. “Joep’s legacy, however, will be lasting, as reflected by his numerous contributions.”
As for the group of researchers that perished on MH17, Dr. Ho added: “Their passing is not only tragic but also devastating to the field, for they are valued colleagues in the struggle against HIV.”