Flossie Wong-Staal (August 27, 1947–July 8, 2020), née Wong Yee Ching (Chinese: 黄以静; pinyin: Huáng Yǐjìng), was a Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist. She was the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, which was a major step in proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS. From 1990 to 2002, she held the Florence Riford Chair in AIDS Research at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She was co-founder and, after retiring from UCSD, she became the Chief Scientific Officer of Immusol, which was renamed iTherX Pharmaceuticals in 2007 when it transitioned to a drug development company focused on hepatitis C, and continued as Chief Scientific Officer.
1 Early life
3 HIV cloning
6 See also
Wong-Staal was born as Wong Yee Ching in Guangzhou, China in 1947. In 1952, her family was among the many Chinese citizens who fled to Hong Kong after the Communist revolution in the late 1940s. During her time in Hong Kong, Wong attended Marymount Secondary School where she excelled in science. Although no women in her family had ever worked outside the home or studied science, her parents supported her academic pursuits. Throughout her time at the school she was encouraged by many of her teachers to further her studies in the United States. Her teachers also suggested she change her name to something in English. Her father chose the name Flossie for her after a massive typhoon that had struck Southeast Asia around this time.
When she was at the age of 18, she left Hong Kong in order to attend the University of California, Los Angeles where she would pursue a BS in bacteriology. She graduated cum laude in just three years. Once she had earned her bachelor's degree, she would go on to earn a PhD in molecular biology from UCLA in 1972. She did her postdoctorate work at the University of California, San Diego, where she would continue to research.
Her postdoctoral work continued until 1973, when she moved to Bethesda, Maryland to work for Robert Gallo at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). At the institute, Wong-Staal began her research into retroviruses. In 1983, Wong-Staal, Gallo and her team of NCI scientists identified HIV as the cause of AIDS, simultaneously with Luc Montagnier. Two years later, Wong-Staal became the first researcher to clone HIV. She also completed genetic mapping of the virus which made it possible to develop HIV tests. This led to the first genetic map of the virus, which aided in the development of blood tests for HIV.
In 1990, Wong-Staal recruited from NCI to the University of California, San Diego where she would start the Center for AIDS Research. Wong-Staal continued her research into HIV and AIDS at UCSD. Wong-Staal's research focused on gene therapy, using a ribozyme "molecular knife" to repress HIV in stem cells. The protocol she developed was the second to be funded by the United States government. In 1990 a team of researchers led by Wong-Staal studied the effects that the Tat protein within the viral strain HIV-1 would have on the growth of cells found within Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions commonly found in AIDS patients. The team of researchers performed tests on a variety of cells that carried the tat protein and observed the rate of cell proliferation in cells infected by HIV-1 and the control, a culture of healthy human endothelial cells. Wong-Staal used a type of cellular analysis known as radioimmunoprecipitation in order to detect the presence of KS lesions in cells with varying amounts of the tat protein. The results of these tests showed that the amount of tat protein within a cell infected by HIV-1 is directly correlated to the amount of KS lesions a patient may have. These findings were essential in developing new treatments for HIV/AIDS patients who suffer from these dangerous lesions.
In 1994 she was named as chairman of UCSD's newly created Center for AIDS Research. In that same year, Wong-Staal was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies.
In 2002, Wong-Staal retired from UCSD and accepted the title of Professor Emerita. She then joined Immusol, a biopharmaceutical company that she co-founded while she was at UCSD, as Chief Scientific Officer. Recognizing the need for improved drugs for hepatitis C (HCV), she transitioned Immusol to an HCV therapeutics focus and renamed it iTherX Pharmaceuticals.
That same year, Discover named Wong-Staal one of the fifty most extraordinary women scientists. Wong-Staal remains as a Research Professor of Medicine at UCSD.
In 2007, The Daily Telegraph heralded Dr. Wong-Staal as #32 of the "Top 100 Living Geniuses."
For her contributions to science, the Institute for Scientific Information named Wong-Staal the top woman scientist of the 1980s. In 2019, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Timeline of women in science
Flossie Wong-Staal Oral History
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