Montreal trailblazer in HIV/AIDS research dies in Florida

Dr. Mark Wainberg, a Montreal-based trailblazer in HIV/AIDS research and an internationally renowned scientist, died Tuesday after swimming in rough water in Bal Harbour, Fla. He was 71.

Mark Wainberg, 71, devoted his life's work to the fight against acquired immune deficiency syndrome

Globally renowned HIV/AIDS researcher Dr. Mark Wainberg has died. (McGill University)

Dr. Mark Wainberg, a Montreal-based trailblazer in HIV/AIDS research and an internationally renowned scientist, died Tuesday after swimming in rough water in Bal Harbour, Fla. He was 71.

Bal Harbour police confirmed Wainberg's death this afternoon.

Acting police chief Miguel De La Rosa said authorities had posted a warning on the beach Tuesday about high surf and high current conditions.

De La Rosa said Wainberg's family was with him and his son had tried to rescue him.

"The son swam out to where he had seen his dad, was able to locate him and began to swim back to shore with him," said De La Rosa. "Other beach-goers went into the water and assisted him in bringing him onto the shore."

By the time officers arrived, Wainberg was already on the shore, said De La Rosa. He was transported to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Groundbreaking researcher

A leader in the fight against AIDS, Wainberg was, at the time of his death, lead investigator at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital and director of the McGill University AIDS Centre.

He was also a professor in the departments of microbiology and immunology, medicine and pediatrics at McGill.

The HIV/AIDS research pioneer has been recognized for his part in the discovery in 1989 of the anti-viral drug 3TC, or Lamivudine, which is used in combination with other medications to treat the infections caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Dr. Mark Wainberg, right, died Tuesday afternoon in Florida. (CBC)

"There were many discoveries related to Dr. Wainberg, but not only discoveries, he was a leader — an international leader," said Dr. Réjean Thomas, the co-founder and CEO of Clinique Médicale L'Actuel, a clinic that tests and treats sexually transmitted infections and diseases, who worked with Wainberg for more than 30 years.

Dr. Cécile Tremblay, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Montreal and researcher at the CHUM Research Centre, said Wainberg was her mentor from the time she was a medical student 25 years ago.

"Before I started my med school, as my career revolved around HIV research, I was collaborating closely with him. He was a leader in our field and he was a mentor. His loss is very significant for me," she told CBC.

"He was a pioneer in the fight against HIV."

Patients 'better off'

Wainberg is known for his contribution to the field of HIV drug resistance, helping to identify many of the mutations in the HIV genome responsible for drug resistance.

"[He] was instrumental in shaping how we use these drugs nowadays, so that they have become so much more efficient than what they were in the past," she said.

"Patients are better off because of the work he has done in his career."

The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame also recognized Wainberg for his accomplishments in improving the lives of people living with HIV.

Wainberg was a leading researcher in the field of HIV/AIDS. (Stuart Nimmo/Canadian Press)

"This once baffling and almost uniformly fatal disease is now treatable, survivable, and increasingly controlled in much of the world. One of the people significantly involved in this tremendous human achievement is Dr. Mark Wainberg," the Hall of Fame's website says.

Wainberg devoted his life's work to AIDS research and HIV/AIDS awareness, serving as president of the International AIDS Society from 1998 to 2000.

He helped organize the 13th International Congress on AIDS in South Africa, in 2000.

"He was the first president to decide to hold an international conference in Durban, South Africa, in a region where the epidemic was devastating," Tremblay said. "He was very proud of that because it shifted the focus to try to control the epidemic across the world and bring the science to the developing countries. He was a pioneer on that level as well."

Wainberg was also a recipient of the National Order of Quebec and the Order of Canada.

With files from Jay Turnbull