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Chinese-American Virologist Who Helped Identify the Cause of AIDS Dies at Age 73

Flossie Wong-Staal

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    World-renowned scientist Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal passed away due to pneumonia at the Jacobs Medical Center in La Jolla, San Diego on July 8, La Jolla Light reported.

    The life of a hero: The 73-year-old Chinese American virologist and molecular biologist, who saved countless lives for her significant contribution in AIDS research while in the United States, was born as Yee Ching Wong on August 27, 1946, in China.

    • According to historians, she fled with her family to Hong Kong in 1952 and eventually went to the United States to study at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1965.
    • Wong graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in bacteriology in 1968 and then obtained a doctorate in molecular biology in 1972.
    • In 1973, Flossie Wong-Staal moved to Bethesda, Maryland to work at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), joining a lab run by Robert Gallo. Gallo became one of the first researchers to discover a type of virus that causes cancer and other diseases, such as AIDS.
    • As Gallo’s co-researcher, Dr. Wong-Staal has become widely acknowledged as a co-discoverer of the cause of AIDS and is widely praised for becoming the first scientist to clone HIV in 1985.
    • She would move on to do research at the Florence Riford Chair in AIDS Research at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) before becoming Chief Scientific Officer for iTherX, a biotechnology company, to work on infectious diseases, cancer, Hepatitis C and gene therapy for HIV. Throughout her career as a scientist, she has received numerous recognitions and awards.
    • Dr. Wong-Staal has earned membership in the U.S. National Academy of Medicine and the Academia Sinica of Taiwan.


    Scientific legacy: Dr. Wong-Staal’s biggest contribution to AIDS research came after she successfully cloned HIV and helped in its identification as the cause of AIDS, reported the Wonder Women Project.

    • In 1984, Gallo published their work claiming he had discovered the virus that causes AIDS. The work also stated progress for a commercial blood test for HIV.
    • “She was an essential force in figuring out the molecular biology of HIV and variations within the virus,” Gallo told the Union-Tribune. “Flossie also did the molecular biology for the second-generation blood test for HIV.”
    • Observers in the scientific community believe the controversy between French and American scientists for the discovery overshadowed the work of other scientists like Wong-Staal, who was essential in figuring out the molecular biology of HIV. Her discovery helped produce a genetic map for HIV and blood tests to detect the virus.
    • As a pioneering UCSD virologist, Dr. Wong-Staal helped transform it into one of the world’s leading research centers on AIDS. 
    • Dr. Wong-Staal has published over 400 papers on the subject of human retroviruses and AIDS.
    • In 1990, she was selected by the Institute for Scientific Information as the top woman scientist of the previous decade based on the citation index of her published work.
    • In 2019, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her scientific work.

    Feature Image via University of California Television (UCTV)

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