Meet Flossie Wong-Staal, a Chinese American virologist and molecular biologist who left an indelible mark on the field of HIV and AIDS research.
An early passion for science: Born Yee Ching Wong on August 27, 1946, in Guangzhou, China, Wong-Staal was 6 years old when her family fled to Hong Kong after the Chinese Communist Revolution.
Growing up, she developed a passion for science, eventually attending the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology in 1968 and a doctorate in molecular biology in 1972.
Making her mark: In the 1970s, she moved to Maryland with her husband, Steven Staal, and joined the National Cancer Institute (NCI). There, she worked with Robert Gallo, a prominent scientist studying retroviruses.
Among her early accomplishments, Wong-Staal provided crucial evidence that the human T-lymphotropic virus could cause cancer, challenging prior beliefs. Her contributions led to her appointment as the section chief of the NCI Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology.
Pioneering work: Wong-Staal’s most groundbreaking work came in the 1980s, with the rise of the AIDS epidemic. Collaborating with Gallo, Wong-Staal became the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, ultimately proving that HIV causes AIDS.
This achievement facilitated the development of HIV blood tests and therapies. Her research also revealed the challenges posed by HIV’s genetic diversity, which led to the use of “drug cocktails” to manage AIDS.
“Working with this virus is like putting your hand in a treasure chest,” Wong-Staal was quoted by Gallo
as saying. “Every time you put your hand in, you pull out a gem.”
In 1990, Wong-Staal founded the Center for AIDS Research at the University of California, San Diego, and later co-founded Immusol, a biopharmaceutical company. After spending more years contributing to HIV research, she eventually shifted her focus to hepatitis C.
Despite her tragic passing at the age of 73 due to complications of pneumonia on July 8, 2020, her groundbreaking AIDS research continues to influence current virology studies, including the fight against COVID-19.