Women In Medicine: Flossie Wong-Staal

By Sara Garner

Born Wong Yee Ching in Guangzhou, China, Flossie Wong-Staal demonstrated a sharp mind from a very young age. As a child, she attended Maryknoll Convent School in Hong Kong, her family having fled the Communist Revolution in 1952. She displayed a talent and passion for both poetry and the sciences, but it was science that her family and school encouraged her to pursue at university level, and so at age 18, she moved to the USA to study molecular biology at UCLA.

During her time working at the Gallo Lab, Flossie Wong-Staal made numerous revolutionary discoveries. The first of these was that the Human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV) which was a carcinogen — meaning it could cause cancer. This research supported the previously dismissed hypothesis that human retroviruses could be carcinogenic, and this newfound knowledge would go on to save many lives. It marked the beginning of the long series of achievements that would go on to shape Wong-Staal’s life.

In 1985, Flossie Wong-Staal became the first person to successfully clone HIV. This medical advancement would go on to lay the groundwork for treatments of a variety of emerging viruses, one of which is COVID-19 (M Gottesman, 2020).

Not long after this discovery, Wong-Staal and her team realised the link between AIDs and its causative agent, HIV. Advancements such as the determination of the function of HIV’s genes and the discovery of molecular evidence of micro-variation in HIV followed, eventually leading to the creation of ‘drug cocktails’ that could be used to manage AIDs.

“She came as a postdoc, and she was the best I ever saw — before, during, or after. She was really sharp in things I needed to be sharper in. We talked every day.” — Bob Gallo

During her time as a member of the Gallo Lab team at NIH, Wong-Staal’s extraordinary intelligence and hard work impressed many. It was not just those she worked with that were impressed, since she went on to be awarded multiple accolades, some of which are: membership in the National Academy of Medicine (1994) and in the Academia Sinica in Taiwan (1994); #32 of the “Top 100 Living Geniuses” in a Daily Telegraph listing (2007); and most recently, induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (2019). Throughout the 1980s, she was the most cited female scientist globally, only further emphasising the importance and significance of her research (A Heidt, 2020).

Flossie Wong-Staal manifested remarkable prowess not just as a molecular biologist, but as an entrepreneur. During her time at University of California, San Diego, she co- founded Immusol, a biopharmaceutical company that would go on to be renamed iTherX Pharmaceuticals when their research interest eventually turned to the production of better drugs for hepatitis C.

On the 8th of July, 2020, Wong-Staal died of pneumonia complications. She leaves behind a legacy of medical excellence, and thousands of lives saved. Although not quite a household name, her numerous achievements make her well-known in the scientific community, and an inspiration for all medic hopefuls globally.

Bibliography

Gottesman, M (2020) ‘Remembrances: Flossie Wong-Staal’, I am intramural blog, 30/06/21, https://irp.nih.gov/blog/post/2020/07/remembrances-flossie-wong-staal

Heidt, A (2020) ‘Pioneering Molecular Virologist Flossie Wong-Staal dies’, The Scientist, 30/06/21 https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/pioneering-molecular-virologist-flossie-wong-staal-dies-67737

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