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Ukraine Plane Crash

AIDS Expert Killed in MH17 Disaster Helped Turn Scientists to Activists

Image: AIDS researcher Joep Lange

AIDS researcher Joep Lange was aboard flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which US officials believe was hit by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. JEAN AYISSI / AFP - Getty Images, file

A Dutch AIDS researcher killed in last week’s downing of a Malaysian Airways passenger jet was one of the leaders of an unusual movement that turned scientists into advocates and even activists.

Dr. Joep Lange, 59, was among the 298 people who died when flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine Thursday.

Lange and at least five other people aboard the flight were en route to a large international AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia, the International AIDS Society, which sponsors the conference, said. The conference opened with a moment of silence and memorials to Lange and the others aboard the flight.

"The fact that he was a scientist didn’t diminish his impact in the activist field.”

Lange, who headed the IAS himself from 2002-2004, helped lead a gradual transformation of HIV researchers who saw more than just discovery and science was needed to tackle a pandemic that’s taken the lives of 25 million people and that infects 35 million more around the world.

“Joep was the epitome of that,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and himself one of the leaders in AIDS research.

“If he did nothing else but his science, he would have been outstanding for his leadership. But he took a very strong stand in the social and activist issues,” Fauci told NBC News by telephone from Melbourne, where he is attending the conference. “He was one of the scientist/activists. The fact that he was a scientist didn’t diminish his impact in the activist field.”

The AIDS meeting Lange was headed to is a unique, colorful and noisy melee that brings together doctors, basic scientists, activists, actors, artists, patients and musicians. Researchers present findings on new drugs and vaccines next door to theatrical performances where condoms are handed out like candy.

When the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS was first identified in the 1980s, there was no drug that could treat it. Eventually, scientists formulated drugs in several different classes that attack the virus at different points in its replicative cycle, during which it attacks immune cells, hijacks their internal activity and turns them into little viral factories.

But Lange was among those who saw that it was going to take a combination of at least three of these drugs — and approach called triple therapy — to control the virus in patients. He pushed hard for health systems and international aid organizations to make triple therapy a standard.

Combination therapy has transformed HIV infection form a certain death sentence to a manageable disease. It's also helped slow the spread, by making patients less likely to infect others.

Lange and others also realized that all their hard research wouldn’t do much good if the people most in need didn’t get the drugs. He helped found a group called the PharmAccess Foundation, which pressed to help get drugs to people in developing countries, where most HIV cases are.

"It was an emotional punch in the gut.”

Lange also helped lead one of the trials that showed giving drugs to babies newly born to HIV-positive mothers helped protect them from being infected — an approach that is now standard.

Fauci heard about the disaster as he was headed to the airport himself to travel to Melbourne."It was an emotional punch in the gut,” he said. Lange was not only respected, but very well liked, Fauci said. “He was the real deal.”

According to IAS, other delegates s aboard the flight were:

Pim de Kuijer, a lobbyist for Aids Fonds/STOP AIDS NOW!; Lucie van Mens, director of support at The Female Health Company, which makes female condoms; Martine de Schutter, program manager at Aids Fonds/STOP AIDS NOW!; and Jacqueline van Tongeren of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development and Lange’s domestic partner.

IAS could not confirm widespread reports that as many as 100 delegates to the conference were aboard the flight.

Also killed was Glenn Thomas, a former BBC journalist who was a spokesman for the World Health Organization, on his way to help handle media coverage of the conference.