Know the scientist: Flossie Wong-Staal

Flossie Wong-Staal (1946 – 2020) was a Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist who cloned human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) for the first time. She determined the function of its genes, a significant step in our understanding and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Flossie Wong-Staal (original name Yee Ching Wong) was born in 1947 in China. She attended an all-girls Catholic school in Hong Kong, where she excelled academically. Her teachers and parents encouraged her to take up science, although her interested lay in literature. However, she pursued science and came to love it.

In 1965, Wong-Staal went to the United States to study bacteriology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology from UCLA in 1972.

Research into retroviruses

In 1973, she began her research into retroviruses along with Robert Gallo at the National Cancer Institute. Retroviruses are a group of viruses that infect their victims by inserting their genetic material into the host’s DNA. Wong-Staal was part of the group that identified the first human retrovirus, human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1). The team showed that the retrovirus could cause cancer, a stance long dismissed by the research community.

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In the early 1980s, when AIDS cases first began appearing in the United States, Wong-Staal and Gallo quickly set about finding the cause and they succeeded in 1983. The duo, along with Luc Montagnier in France, simultaneously discovered that HIV, a retrovirus, was the cause of AIDS. In 1985, Wong-Staal became the first researcher to clone HIV. It led to the first genetic map of the virus, which aided in the development of blood tests for HIV.

Other scientific contributions

Wong-Staal’s research into the Tat protein within the viral strain HIV-1 led to the development of new treatments for Kaposi's sarcoma, a type of skin lesion, affecting HIV/AIDS patients.

In 1990, Wong-Staal joined the University of California San Diego, where she led the Center for AIDS Research and investigated gene therapy as a treatment for HIV/AIDS.

Wong-Staal died of pneumonia (not related to coronavirus) in 2020 at the age of 73.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 11:28:44 PM |

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