As Dr. Julio Montaner says, he never chose to go into AIDS prevention and research. It chose him.
In 1981, he came to Vancouver to do post-doctoral work at the University of B.C. He did that to earn the credentials so he could work alongside his father, Dr. Julio Gonzalez Montaner, a pulmonary specialist and tuberculosis expert in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Montaner wanted to work with him in public health.
He arrived in Vancouver just as the AIDS crisis was beginning.
“The No. 1 complication of HIV in the early days was a very serious pneumonia that was killing people right, left and centre,” Montaner told The Vancouver Sun in 2015.
“My boss made me a trade. If I worked on AIDS for a year, he would give me a job in respiratory. He tricked me into it. He never gave me that job, and I never asked for it.”
Thanks to that “trick”, Montaner stayed in B.C. and became one of the world’s top AIDS researchers. He is now director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul’s Hospital. During his career, Montaner has authored more than 650 scientific publications on HIV/AIDS.
Montaner’s single biggest contribution to treating AIDS patients occurred in 1996. He was treating HIV patients with azidothymidine, or AZT. But because people were developing resistance to a single drug, he added another called didanosine, or DDI, and then a third, nevirapine. The results were officially released at the 11th international AIDS conference in Vancouver in 1996. Combined with findings from a U.S. team, the triple-drug therapy for HIV was born. AIDS moved from a death sentence to a manageable syndrome.
In 2005, Montaner became an advocate for a group of six men, including Tiko Kerr, who were dying from AIDS. Montaner appealed to federal minister Ujjal Dosanjh to let him administer two experimental antiretroviral drugs: TMC 114 and TMC 125.
Kerr and the others were close to death, but Health Canada said the drugs couldn’t be used because they were potentially toxic.
Although one died while Ottawa was making up its mind, Montaner was finally given permission to administer the two drugs. Kerr later said Montaner’s intervention “saved my life.”
Montaner was the architect of the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS known as 90-90-90, which has become the world standard for prevention and treatment.
“If we get, by 2020, 90 per cent of the people globally diagnosed, at least 90 per cent of them on treatment, and at least 90 per cent of them biologically suppressed, it will be an approximately 90 per cent decrease in HIV progression and new infections globally,” he said.
“From a global perspective, that would be the best that we can offer to end the pandemic as a pandemic.”
Author: KEVIN GRIFFIN