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Flossie Wong-Staal

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Flossie Wong-Staal
Wong Yee Ching

(1946-08-27)August 27, 1946
Guangzhou, Guangdong, Republic of China[1]
DiedJuly 8, 2020(2020-07-08) (aged 73)
La Jolla, California, U.S.[2]
Alma materUniversity of California, Los Angeles (Ph.D., 1972)
Known forCloning of HIV
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of California, San Diego, iTherX
Academic advisorsRobert Gallo

Flossie Wong-Staal (née Wong Yee Ching, Chinese: 黄以静; pinyin: Huáng Yǐjìng; August 27, 1946 – July 8, 2020) was a Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist. She was the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, which was a major step in proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS. From 1990 to 2002, she held the Florence Riford Chair in AIDS Research at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She was co-founder and, after retiring from UCSD, she became the chief scientific officer of Immusol, which was renamed iTherX Pharmaceuticals in 2007 when it transitioned to a drug development company focused on hepatitis C and continued as chief scientific officer.[3]

Early life[edit]

Wong-Staal was born as Wong Yee Ching in Guangzhou, China, in 1946. The third child in her family of four, she grew up with two brothers and a sister. In 1952, her family was among the many Chinese citizens who fled to Hong Kong after the Communist revolution in the late 1940s. During her time in Hong Kong, Wong attended Maryknoll Convent School, where she excelled in science.[4] Although no women in her family had ever worked outside the home or studied science, her parents supported her academic pursuits. Throughout her time at the school she was encouraged by many of her teachers to further her studies in the United States. Her teachers also suggested she change her name to something in English. Her father chose the name "Flossie" for her after a massive typhoon that had struck Southeast Asia around this time.[4][2]


When she was 18, she left Hong Kong to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, where she pursued a Bachelor of Science degree in bacteriology.[5] She graduated cum laude in just three years. After earning her bachelor's degree, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology from UCLA in 1972. She conducted her postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Diego, where she continued to research.[4]

HIV cloning[edit]

Her postdoctoral work continued until 1973, when she moved to Bethesda, Maryland, to work for Robert Gallo at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). At the institute, Wong-Staal began her research into retroviruses.[6] Two years later, Wong-Staal became the first researcher to clone HIV. She also completed genetic mapping of the virus which made it possible to develop HIV tests.[7] This led to the first genetic map of the virus, which aided in the development of blood tests for HIV.[8]


In the late 1970s, Wong-Staal's team, alongside Dr. Gallo, conducted research on the human retrovirus, human T cell leukemia virus (HTLV), and determined that it was the causative agent in human adult T cell leukemia. Her team specifically studied the molecular virology of HTLV-1 by examining its transcriptional activators and posttranslational regulators. This discovery was significant in the study of human retroviruses as there was prior debate as to whether retroviruses could cause human disease.[5]

In 1990, Wong-Staal was recruited from NCI to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where she started the Center for AIDS Research. Wong-Staal continued her research into HIV/AIDS at UCSD. Wong-Staal's research focused on gene therapy, using a ribozyme "molecular knife" to repress HIV in stem cells. The protocol she developed was the second to be funded by the United States government. In 1990 a team of researchers led by Wong-Staal studied the effects that the Tat protein within the viral strain HIV-1 would have on the growth of cells found within Kaposi's sarcoma lesions commonly found in AIDS patients.[9]

The team of researchers performed tests on a variety of cells that carried the Tat protein and observed the rate of cell proliferation in cells infected by HIV-1 and the control, a culture of healthy human endothelial cells.[10] Wong-Staal used a type of cellular analysis known as radioimmunoprecipitation in order to detect the presence of KS lesions in cells with varying amounts of the Tat protein. The results of these tests showed that the amount of Tat protein within a cell infected by HIV-1 is directly correlated to the amount of KS lesions a patient may have. These findings were essential in developing new treatments for HIV/AIDS patients who suffer from these dangerous lesions.[11]


In 1994, Wong-Staal was named as chairman of UCSD's newly created Center for AIDS Research.[8] In that same year, Wong-Staal was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies,[12][13] and to Taiwan's Academia Sinica.[14]

In 2002, Wong-Staal retired from UCSD and accepted the title of professor emerita. She then joined Immusol, a biopharmaceutical company that she co-founded with her second husband, Jeffrey McKelvy,[15] while she was at UCSD, as chief scientific officer. Recognizing the need for improved drugs for hepatitis C (HCV), she transitioned Immusol to an HCV therapeutics focus and renamed it iTherX Pharmaceuticals.[16]

That same year, Discover named Wong-Staal one of the fifty "most extraordinary women scientists".[3] Wong-Staal remained as a research professor of medicine at UCSD until her death on July 8, 2020.[2][17]

In 2007, The Daily Telegraph heralded Wong-Staal as #32 of the "Top 100 Living Geniuses".[18]

For her contributions to science, the Institute for Scientific Information named Wong-Staal "the top woman scientist of the 1980s".[2] In 2019, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[19]

Scientist magazine named her one of the "ten superstars of science" in 1990. This was due to her being part of the team that discovered HIV and her effort of successfully cloning the HIV virus which led to its genetic mapping and the ability to screen blood for HIV. [20]

Personal life[edit]

In 1971, while doing her PhD at the UCLA, she married a fellow student, oncologist Stephen P. Staal. The couple had two daughters (Stephanie and Vega Staal), before divorcing around 1990. Wong-Staal later re-married to neurologist Jeffrey McKelvy, with whom she founded Immusol. She had four grandchildren.[21][22]

Wong-Staal died on July 8, 2020, at the age of 73, at Jacobs Medical Center in La Jolla, due to complications caused by pneumonia.[22]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Thomson, Gale (2007). "Wong-Staal, Flossie". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved September 6, 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d Robbins, Gary (July 10, 2020). "Flossie Wong-Staal, pioneering UCSD virologist who helped identify AIDS cause, dies". San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved July 10, 2020.
  3. ^ a b "Immusol Chief Scientific Officer, Flossie Wong-Staal, Ph.D., Named One of Top 50 Women Scientists". PR Newswire. October 15, 2002.
  4. ^ a b c "Biographies of Flossie Wong-Staal Scientists". www.biography-center.com. Archived from the original on January 12, 2017. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  5. ^ a b Franchini, Genoveffa (September 11, 2020). "Flossie Wong-Staal (1946–2020)". Science. 369 (6509): 1308. Bibcode:2020Sci...369.1308F. doi:10.1126/science.abe4095. S2CID 221593468.
  6. ^ Notable Asian Americans. Gale Research. 1995. ISBN 9780810396234.
  7. ^ World of Health. Gale Group. 2000. ISBN 9780787636494.
  8. ^ a b World of Microbiology and Immunology. Gale. 2003.
  9. ^ Ratner, Lee; Haseltine, William; Patarca, Roberto; Livak, Kenneth J.; Starcich, Bruno; Josephs, Steven F.; Doran, Ellen R.; Rafalski, J. Antoni; Whitehorn, Erik A. (January 24, 1985). "Complete nucleotide sequence of the AIDS virus, HTLV-III". Nature. 313 (6000): 277–284. Bibcode:1985Natur.313..277R. doi:10.1038/313277a0. PMID 2578615. S2CID 4316242.
  10. ^ Schmeck Jr., Harold M. (March 3, 1987). "Aids Virus: Studies Reveal Extraordinary Complexity". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 10, 2020.
  11. ^ Wong-Staal, Flossie (1990). "Tat Protein of HIV-1 Stimulates growth cells derived from Kaposi's sarcoma lesions of AIDS patients" (PDF). Nature. 345 (6270): 84–86. Bibcode:1990Natur.345...84E. doi:10.1038/345084a0. PMID 2184372. S2CID 4353813. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 2, 2017. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  12. ^ "Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal – University News |". info.umkc.edu. Archived from the original on July 31, 2020. Retrieved July 10, 2020.
  13. ^ "Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal". National Academy of Medicine. Retrieved September 11, 2023.
  14. ^ "Flossie Wong-Staal". Academia Sinica. Retrieved September 11, 2023.
  15. ^ Heidt, Amanda, Pioneering Molecular Virologist Flossie Wong-Staal Dies, The Scientist, July 14, 2020
  16. ^ Heidt, Amanda, Pioneering Molecular Virologist Flossie Wong-Staal Dies, The Scientist, July 14, 2020
  17. ^ "Immusol" Archived September 12, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, immusol.com; accessed July 17, 2020.
  18. ^ Robert Simon Jr. (October 28, 2007). "Top 100 living geniuses". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  19. ^ National Women's Hall of Fame, Flossie Wong-Staal
  20. ^ ""Carnegie Awards"".
  21. ^ Faye Flam (July 17, 2020). "Flossie Wong-Staal, Who Unlocked Mystery of H.I.V., Dies at 73". The New York Times. Retrieved June 2, 2021.
  22. ^ a b Sarah Nelson (August 6, 2020). "Biologist Flossie Wong-Staal remembered for pioneering HIV research and treatments". Daily Bruin. Retrieved June 2, 2021.

General sources[edit]

  • "Science Superstar". National Geographic World: 25–27. June 1993.
  • "Intimate Enemies". Discover: 16–17. December 1991.
  • Clark, Cheryl (November 11, 1992). "Researcher Stays Hot on the Trail of Deadly Virus". San Diego Union Tribune. pp. C-1.
  • "Science Leaders: Researchers to Watch in the Next Decade". The Scientist: 18–24. May 28, 1990.

External links[edit]