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Prominent HIV researcher Joep Lange was among the victims of flight MH17

The HIV/AIDS community is mourning the loss of Joep Lange, a prominent HIV researcher and former president of the International AIDS Society, who died on flight MH17 on his way to an international AIDS conference.

"Joep is one of our giants in terms of AIDS research and AIDS access to treatment and care in poor places around the world," said Richard Marlink, executive director of the Harvard School of Public Health AIDS Initiative. "He worked in Thailand on vaccines, in Africa on access to care and medical education. On top of all that was just a gem of a person."

Lange was one of the key researchers behind several HIV treatment trials

A Dutch citizen, Lange was professor of medicine and head of the department of global health at the University of Amsterdam. He had been involved in HIV treatment and research since 1983, just as the virus was emerging as a global health threat.

Lange was one of the key researchers behind several pivotal antiretroviral therapy trials, including projects involving the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the virus in both the developing and developed world, according to the Amsterdam Institute of Global Health and Development.

Very early on in the fight against AIDS, Lange advocated bringing HIV medications to the developing world. He'd travel to the most under-served areas to promote best practices in HIV care, and contributed to knowledge about HIV/AIDS with more than 300 academic papers and as editor of the journal Antiviral Therapy. At the World Health Organization in the 1990s, he led their clinical research and drug development unit.

Lange on the hope for AIDS

Lange was traveling with his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, who has also died in the crash. According to University of Amsterdam website, van Tongeren helped Lange with many of his HIV/AIDS efforts and was involved in global health work, too.

"Thanks to her previous experience as an HIV-AIDS nurse, she was extremely familiar with the issues concerned," the website reads. "Over time, the bonds between Joep and Jacqueline developed far beyond those of a relationship between colleagues."

"Joep was a visionary amongst HIV researchers," American HIV researcher Dr. Rick Elion told Vox. "He was acutely aware of the multiple dimensions of HIV spanning science to society and had a heart of gold. This is a huge loss for the field."

Dr. Martin S. Hirsch, a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School who trained many of the current leaders in the HIV/AIDS field, said Lange was "someone who rationally looked at the problems of access to HIV therapies around the world, and did something about it."

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and researcher Laurie Garrett told Vox, "Joep made fundamentally important discoveries at a time when there was a team of Dutch scientists who were disproportionately effective in AIDS research."

"Joep was absolutely committed to the development of affordable HIV treatments, particularly combination therapies, for use in resource-poor countries," David Cooper, a friend and fellow researcher told the Australian academic news website The Conversation.

"Another outstanding area of [Lange’s] contribution has been his pioneering role in exploring affordable and simple antiretroviral drug regimens for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in resource-poor settings," Cooper said.

Other researchers, professionals, and activists have died en route to AIDS 2014, though the death toll has not yet been confirmed. Right now, conference organizers said they can only confirm the names of six participants, including Lange and van Tongeren.

Some have noted the parallels between Lange's death, and that of other prominent AIDS researchers who died in plane crashes. As Laurie Garrett wrote on her blog:

In 1996 the one and only joyous AIDS Conference convened in Vancouver – a meeting marked by announcement of successful combination therapy that knocked the dastardly virus down to levels undetectable in blood. There was hope for a cure, thanks in large part to the Dutch work. Some dared to speak of eradicating HIV all together.

Two years later, as hundreds of thousands of HIV-positive men and women living in wealthy countries were thriving on those treatment combinations, hope dominated the pandemic, until 1998 when Swissair Flight SR11 crashed off Nova Scotia, killing all on board. Among them, Jonathan Mann and his new wife, AIDS vaccine researcher Mary Lou Clements. Their sudden loss felt like a kick in the gut for the world AIDS community.

Here we are, sixteen years later, facing airline tragedy again.

Read more on the impact of MH17 on the HIV/AIDS community here.

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