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Woman of The 80's: Flossie Wong-Staal

Updated: Mar 16

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. This week, I wrote about a pioneer in the research of a viral disease that is still incurable to this day – Flossie Wong-Staal.

 

Flossie Wong-Staal was born in 1946 in Guangzhou, Guangdong, Republic of China. She had three siblings and spent her childhood in Hong Kong after her family had moved there because of the Chinese Communist Revolution. She attended the Maryknoll Convent School where she found interest in science and luckily had the support of both her parents and her teachers. Planning to study in the US, she changed her birth name Yee Ching to something 'English-sounding', becoming Flossie.

At 18, Flossie moved to the US to study at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where she earned her bachelor's degree in bacteriology and doctorate in molecular biology. Around this time, she married her first husband, oncologist Stephen P. Staal, with whom she later had two children, but the marriage ended in divorce. She did postdoctoral work at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) but soon moved to Maryland.

There, Flossie worked as a Research Fellow at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) with Robert Gallo. At the institute, retroviruses (viruses that can change the genomic information of their host) caught her attention. She started researching them, and only two years later, she was the first person to successfully clone HIV and also stood behind the first genetic map of the virus. Her discoveries were crucial when proving HIV as the cause of AIDS and developing blood tests for the virus. Flossie also pointed out that HIV is highly heterogeneous in patients, predicting the importance of combination (cocktail) therapy.

In 1990, after she had worked her way up to be a Section Chief at NCI, Flossie decided to leave her position to chair AIDS research and teach as a professor at UCSD. She later directed the AIDS Research Institute and co-directed the Center for AIDS Research at the University. In 2002, Flossie accepted the title of professor emerita and became the director of Immusol, a biopharmaceutical company she had co-founded with Jeffrey McKelvy, her second husband. With the company, she started focusing more on hepatitis C therapeutics and renamed the company to iTherX Pharmaceuticals.

Flossie died in 2020, still working as a research professor at UCSD. Throughout her life, she greatly contributed to medicine with her research of various viruses and her contributions were recognized with different titles and her induction to the National Women's Hall of Fame.



 

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