i2eye with HIV researcher Mark Wainberg

i2eye with HIV researcher Mark Wainberg

A Canadian expert takes stock of the fight against HIV/AIDS
July 25, 2012
A renowned researcher and passionate activist, Dr. Mark Wainberg has been fighting HIV/AIDS from the lab bench to the halls of politics since 1984. As Director of Research at the Lady Davis Institute of the Jewish General Hospital and of the McGill AIDS Centre in Montréal, and former head of the International AIDS Society, he has been tirelessly helping change perceptions about the disease and has made great strides in unlocking its mysteries. Wainberg was one of the first scientists in Canada to study HIV and AIDS. In the late 1980s, he and his research team helped to develop 3TC, a drug now commonly used to treat AIDS. He is currently studying drug resistance, trying to understand the effect of viral density on HIV transmission rates in various African countries, and searching for that elusive Holy Grail in AIDS research—a vaccine. In recognition of World AIDS Day, InnovationCanada.ca asked Dr. Wainberg how far we’ve come since the first cases of HIV infection were identified more than 25 years ago.

InnovationCanada.ca (IC):  After a quarter century of battling HIV, how are we doing?

Dr. Mark Wainberg (MW): It’s not a secret that progress in western nations has been wonderful and people with HIV can now live indefinitely because the drugs are working so well. But in contrast, drug access in developing countries, though somewhat improved, continues to be a major problem. There are skyrocketing cases of HIV in so many countries across Africa and Asia. So we really need to be aware that there are two quite different worlds out there: one in which people have access to proper treatments and another where they don’t.

IC: So do you think we are gaining ground at all in treating AIDS?

MW: Yes, there’s no question. I think we’re gaining ground each and every year, but we have to remember that this is still a preventable infection. We obviously have to do a better job at education and prevention. We keep seeing way too many new infections right here in Canada, and this is a terrible shame.

IC: How is Canada affected by HIV/AIDS?

Well, we have probably 70,000 infectionspeople who have HIV in Canadaas we speak. That’s not a trivial number. A lot of the infections are among the gay male population, but there are also tremendous numbers of aboriginal Canadians who contract HIV every year. The bottom line is that we have to do a much better job at public health in this country.

IC:  Where does Canadian research in the field figure globally?

Dr. Mark Wainberg

Dr. Mark Wainberg

MW: It’s fair to say that we hold our own when compared to countries around the world. We are fortunate that we have had the capacity to produce well-trained scientists that are tackling diseases like this and making discoveries. But the United States far outspends us per capita in terms of research support in all areas of medical research.

IC: So do you think Canada is doing all it can in terms of funding?

MW: No, of course not. But I do applaud our government for making some of the right decisions in terms of funding. You can always say that you can do more, but these are tough times, and we’re in a tough economy. I think we’re all aware that there’s a real danger of a recession now. Against that background, I certainly still want our government to do whatever it can to help African and Asian countries do well and navigate through this terrible epidemic.

IC: Have perceptions about AIDS changed over the years?

MW: Unfortunately, the perception out there is that we’ve dealt very well with HIV and it’s no longer a problem. What we have been doing is preventing a lot of people from dying the way they were back in the 1980s and 90s—and that progress has been very palpable. The message that’s registered unfortunately is that now everybody is being saved, which is not the case at all. We still have a big job to do. HIV continues to spread and cause havoc in so many countries in Africa and Asia, and every year there are many new infections right here in Canada that simply shouldn’t be happening.

IC: What does the future hold? Will there be an AIDS vaccine?

MW: Treating people is expensive, but if you could instead give just one injection that would end their risk, that would be a much more cost-effective solution. Unfortunately, we are still a long way off in finding an AIDS vaccine. Millions have been spent on vaccine development and trials that haven’t panned out, so we have to sober up and reassess a lot of the assumptions we have been making up until now in terms of possible solutions.

Our most important progress has been and probably will continue to be in the development of drug therapies. We can use our drugs to treat people, and this will also enable us to prevent some new transmissions. There is consensus that people who are treated well will have lower amounts of virus in their blood, and that this may translate into lowering new transmissions

Originally posted December 1, 2008