Flossie Wong-Staal

BOD – DOD:  August 27, 1947                         50_wong_staal

Field of study: virologist and molecular biologist

Invention: First to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, a major step in proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS

 

“For me, as for most researchers, the main motivation is simply the satisfaction of making discoveries, finding out things out that no one knew before.”- Flossie Wong-Staal

 

When I was searching for someone to highlight this month, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for but I knew the moment I saw it. Flossie Wong-Staal didn’t have an idea and create something she found something that no one was sure even existed. She had an idea and she labored to a conclusion. We live in a world where everything is now and I thought Flossie Wong-Staal was a good example of what labor is about.  I was born in the time of AIDS, so I don’t know a world without it. Thankfully to work of Flossie Wong-Staal and her colleagues on the international task force I have a brighter future. We all do.

Flossie Wong-Staal was originally born Yee Ching Wong in China to Chinese parents. In 1952, the family moved to Hong Kong where young Yee attended an all girls catholic school. At school encouraged by teachers and a supportive family, Yee gradually embraced science. Also, while there her father changed her name to Flossie at the schools encouragement to more westernize her name.  After secondary school she moved to California to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where she earned a B.A in bacteriology and PhD in molecular biology. During graduate school Flossie married and her name changed to Flossie Wong-Staal, but she later divorced.

During graduate school a discovery was made that would influence Wong-Staal’s career. Researchers discovered the RNA tumor virus (a retrovirus) and its reverse transcriptase which created a possible tool for gene cloning and analysis. Even though general belief held that retroviruses were not common, Wong- Staal and others believed otherwise. After graduating from UCLA, she moved to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) where she worked in the lab of Robert Gallo, a renowned researcher, on retroviruses.

HIV genetic map

 While at the NCI, Wong-Staal and colleagues made several discoveries that would change the face of science. The first was the Human T-Lymphotropic Virus (HTLV) which attacks T cells in the human body. Later scientists were able to make parallels between the type of leukemia caused by the HTLV and AIDS patients.  An international task force was created and in 1983, Gallo, Waag- Staal and other NCI researchers identified HIV at the same that Luc Montagnier in France at the Pasteur Institute. In 1985, Robert Gallo and she were the first to clone the HIV virus which led to a genetic map there by allowing scientist to develop blood tests for the disease.

Flossie Wong-Staal is currently a noted researcher with patents on the HIV blood tests. In 1990, she was named top woman scientist of the previous decade by Institute for Scientific Information. She has held the Florence Riford Chair in AIDS Research at the University of California at San Diego.

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