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Flossie Wong-Staal, History-Making Female HIV Scientist, Died


Wong-Staal's breakthroughs helped lead to modern HIV tests and life-saving medications.

Flossie Wong-Staal, one of the top women in the nearly 40-year battle against HIV, has died at the age of 73.

Wong-Staal succumbed to pnemonia complications in San Diego earlier this month not related to COVID-19, according to The Washington Post.

In her long career, Wong-Staal oversaw advances in cancer, Hepatitis C, and most memorably, HIV and AIDS. Her work paved the way for modern HIV tests and retrovirals that turned HIV from a death sentence to a managable condition. 

A native of China who moved to Hong Kong as a child, Wong-Staal came to the U.S. to study at the University of California, Los Angeles in the late 1960s; she would soon obtain a Ph.D. in molecular biology. As a visiting fellow, Wong-Staal went to work at the National Institute of Health's National Cancer Institute in 1973. The young scientist worked along Robert Gallo, another brilliant and famed disease researcher, and the two collaborated on numerous discoveries in the following decades.

One of Wong-Staal's earliest successes was providing the "definitive molecular evidence that human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV) can cause cancer," according to the National Cancer Institute. "The research sealed the case that human retroviruses can be carcinogenic, a stance long dismissed by the research community."

When HIV emerged in the early 1980s, Wong-Staal, now a senior scientist with the NIH, was immediately deployed to oversee solutions.  

Wong-Staal was the first to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, "a major step in proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS," according to the NCI. "Flossie also discovered molecular evidence of micro-variation in HIV, which led to the use of 'drug cocktails' to manage AIDS. She provided the molecular biology necessary for the second-generation blood test for HIV."

Wong-Staal would say working towards HIV advances was the highlight of her career and would describe the disease as one that "breaks many rules."

The scientist worked furiously in those years and was the most cited woman in scientific and medical journals in the 1980s; her writings and discoveries appeared in approximately 7,800 citations.

Wong-Staal left the NIH in 1990 to work at the University of California, San Diego, where she founded the Center for AIDS Research, focusing on HIV treatments that utilized gene therapy. During her time at UCSD, Wong-Staal and her husband launched a biopharmaceutical company called Immusol; the female scientist would eventually become Immusol's Chief Scientific Officer.

Wong-Staal is survived by her husband, two daughters, one sister, two brothers, and four grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, her family asks those interested in donating to give to Doctors Without Borders in Flossie's name.

This pioneering scientist's word will endure for decades, if not centuries. "“We still use the lessons we learned through Flossie’s work,” NCI scientist George N. Pavlakis told the Post.

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