AIDS researchers, activists believed among Malaysia plane victims

The AIDS community is grieving the loss of at least six researchers and activists who were believed to have been aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 en route to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.

The International AIDS Society announced Saturday that at least six delegates (not 100 as previously reported) were traveling to the conference.

Joep Lange, a prominent clinical researcher, is among the many lost from the AIDS community.
Joep Lange, a prominent clinical researcher, is among the many lost from the AIDS community.
Jean Ayissi/AFP/Getty Images

The International AIDS Society, which organizes the conference, reports that a number of delegates were among victims of the tragedy but has not released any names. A statement released by the society said it is working with authorities to clarify how the loss impacts the conference.

The group was believed to have included several prominent AIDS researchers, including Joep Lange, 60 and a world-renowned Dutch clinical researcher and former president of the society.

Lange also founded PharmAccess Foundation, a nonprofit to improve access to medications for HIV/AIDS. His partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, who was a board member of ArtAids, was also believed to have been onboard the plane.

Lange was barely 30 years old when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported its first case of a rare lung infection in five young, previously healthy men. Lange went on to write his dissertation on identifying HIV antibodies in blood plasma, research that played a part in helping to develop the HIV antigen test.

He was a pioneer of the "cocktail" approach to medication therapy to manage the disease.

In the early days of HIV drug development, many clinicians and scientists held fast to the concept of identifying a single antiretroviral drug that would work for a patient. Lange was among a handful of researchers who insisted the approach might do more harm than good because a patient would be more likely to develop resistance to that particular medication.

He turned out to be right; HIV patients today typically take a combination of three or more drugs. His most recent efforts were centered on supporting trials for antiretroviral pre-exposure prophylaxis (PReP), the use of HIV drugs by high-risk, healthy individuals to prevent infection.

"Joep Lange was a towering presence in the fight against AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic and a wonderful friend, colleague, and teacher," said Kevin Robert Frost, CEO of amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. "He inspired legions of AIDS researchers, health care workers and activists and was an inspiration to me personally. He will be sorely missed."

Also aboard the flight were Pim de Kuijer, an activist with Stop AIDS Now and AIDS Fund Netherlands; Martine de Schutter, a program manager at Bridging the Gaps; Glenn Raymond Thomas, a Geneva-based spokesman for the World Health Organization; and Lucie van Mens, director of program development and support with the Female Health Company, the Chicago-based company that manufactures the FC2 Female Condom.

On Friday, President Obama recognized the researchers and scientists and praised their efforts.

"In this world today, we shouldn't forget then, in the midst of conflict and killing, there are people like these," the president said, "people who are focused on what can be built, rather than what can be destroyed, people who are focused on how they can help people that they've never met, people who define themselves not by what makes them different from other people but by the humanity that we hold in common. It's important for us to lift them up and to affirm their lives. And it's time for us to heed their example."