A key figure in recognizing the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), molecular biologist and virologist Flossie Wong-Staal ’68, Ph.D. ’72 was born Yee Ching Wong in China. After Wong-Staal and her family fled to Hong Kong, she excelled in academics and eventually took an interest in science. The first female in her family to attend university, she pursued both her undergraduate and graduate education at UCLA, earning a degree in bacteriology and a doctorate in molecular biology. Her contribution to the areas of bacteriology and retroviruses has been vital to understanding HIV and AIDS, and paved the way for later advancements.
Wong-Staal was the first scientist to clone HIV. After receiving her doctorate, she began to research retroviruses at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). In 1983, she and her team identified HIV as the cause of AIDS. Two years later, she cloned and genetically mapped the entire virus, both crucial steps in developing HIV tests that screen donated blood and test people.
Later, the accomplished scientist left NCI to become the Florence Riford Chair in AIDS Research at the University of California, San Diego in 1990. There, Wong-Staal continued researching HIV and AIDS. In 1994, she was elected to the convocation of Academia Sinica, a top research institution in Taiwan. As part of the convocation, Wong-Staal helped shape the country’s policies on academic research and conducted public research. That same year, she also became chair of the UCSD Center for AIDS Research and was elected to be a member of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies, an influential nonprofit organization that gives unbiased, authoritative advice to the nation’s decision makers and the public. During her time at UCSD, she focused her research on gene therapy and developed a protocol to repress HIV in stem cells, the second such protocol to be funded by the U.S. government.
Wong-Staal retired from UCSD in 2002 with the title professor emerita. She then became vice president and chief scientific officer of Immusol, a drug development company that she co-founded in San Diego. Wong-Staal renamed the company iTherX Pharmaceuticals and switched its focus to improving treatments for hepatitis C. The acclaimed scientist continues to contribute to the areas of bacteriology and retroviruses through her extensive work at iTherX.