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Flossie Wong-Staal, pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher, dies at 73

By Emily Langer July 13, 2020 at 4:55 p.m. CDT

Flossie Wong-Staal, a molecular virologist who led research that helped produce seminal findings about HIV — its genetic structure, the insidious manner in which it invades the immune system, and ways of detecting and treating it, died July 8 at a hospital in San Diego, Calif. She was 73. The cause was complications from pneumonia not related to the novel coronavirus, said her daughter Stephanie Staal. Dr. Wong-Staal came to the United States from Hong Kong as a university student and joined the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., in 1973 as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory led by virologist Robert C. Gallo. Over the next 17 years, she became a section chief in the laboratory of tumor cell biology and one of NIH’s leading researchers. In 1990, the publication the Scientist identified her as the most cited woman in science of the 1980s, with 7,772 citations in academic journals during that decade.

“She was on the forefront of molecularly defining” the human immunodeficiency virus and explaining “how this virus caused AIDS and what was needed to combat it,” Beatrice H. Hahn, a molecular virologist who worked under Dr. Wong-Staal as a postdoctoral fellow and is now a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview. “This was a man’s world at the time — this was 40 years ago — and she certainly held her own.”

When Dr. Wong-Staal joined NIH, Gallo was engaged in groundbreaking research on retroviruses, a group of viruses that infect their victims by inserting their genetic material into the host’s DNA. Healthy immune systems can attack and vanquish a standard virus, such as influenza, by recognizing and attacking it as a foreign invader. A retrovirus, on the other hand, becomes part of the host’s genome and is therefore much more difficult to defeat.

Gallo made scientific headlines by discovering the first human retrovirus, the leukemia-causing HTLV-1, for which he said Dr. Wong-Staal provided molecular analysis.

“At the time, there was no indication that such viruses existed in humans. Most of the hardcore scientists didn’t believe in human retroviruses and called them ‘human rumor viruses,’ ” Dr. Wong-Staal told the publication Genomics and Proteomics in 2003. “It wasn’t a very pleasant atmosphere at the time, but we persisted.”

The study of retroviruses took on extreme urgency in the early 1980s as AIDS — a disease soon shown to be caused by the retrovirus HIV — emerged and grew quickly into an epidemic. Gallo and the French virologist Luc Montagnier, the principal figures in a long-running dispute over whose laboratory deserved greater credit for identifying HIV, are today recognized as its co-discoverers.

Working under Gallo, in concert and in competition with scientists in the United States and around the world, Dr. Wong-Staal led a team of scientists who produced a string of breakthroughs in the study of HIV in the 1980s. In an NIH oral history, she recalled it as a “dizzying” time — a period of “intense discovery” that was the “highlight” of her career.

Under Dr. Wong-Staal’s leadership, researchers including Hahn were the first to clone HIV. “To have in hand a pure copy of the genetic information of that virus,” Hahn said, “was a critical first step in understanding the molecular biology — the genetics of the virus, if you will.”

Dr. Wong-Staal described HIV as a disease that “breaks many rules.” She and her colleagues were among several groups of scientists who performed nucleotide sequencing on HIV to map its entire genetic makeup, or genome, and to elucidate its many variations. Such research helped lead to second-generation HIV tests and provided the scientific basis for the so-called drug “cocktails” that have significantly improved the medical outlook for millions of HIV/AIDS patients around the world.

Yee Ching Wong was born in Guangzhou, China, on Aug. 27, 1946. Her father worked in the import-export business, and her mother was a homemaker. In the wake of the Chinese Communist Revolution, the family moved to Hong Kong, where Dr. Wong-Staal attended an all-girls school run by English-speaking nuns.

She credited her parents with encouraging her studies, even though few Chinese women of her generation had the opportunity to pursue higher education. She was initially interested in literature, she said, but decided to study science because it was considered a more prestigious field.

Dr. Wong-Staal changed her first name on the suggestion of the nuns at her school. “Since I did not want to be another Mary or Theresa, I asked my father to choose something unusual,” she told the publication Psychology Today in 2010. “He saw a list of names for typhoons that hit Southeast Asia, and picked Flossie.”

She came to the United States to attend the University of California at Los Angeles, where she received a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology in 1968 and a doctorate in molecular biology in 1972. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California at San Diego, she joined Gallo’s lab, where, in addition to her work on HIV/AIDS, she contributed to research on cancer-causing oncogenes.

In 1990, Dr. Wong-Staal left NIH and returned to UC-San Diego, where she led the Center for AIDS Research and investigated approaches to gene therapy as a treatment for HIV/AIDS. She later became co-founder, chief scientific officer and vice president of Immusol, a pharmaceutical company now known as ­iTherX, where she pursued treatments for hepatitis C. She retired in 2017.

Her marriage to Stephen Staal ended in divorce. Survivors include her husband of 18 years, Jeffrey McKelvy of San Diego; a daughter from her first marriage, Stephanie Staal of Brooklyn; a daughter from a relationship with Gallo, Caroline Vega of San Diego; a sister; two brothers; and four grandchildren.

Dr. Wong-Staal received numerous honors, including induction into the National Academy of Medicine and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

George N. Pavlakis, a scientist at the National Cancer Institute who collaborated with Dr. Wong-Staal in the 1980s, compared the international mobilization against HIV/AIDS at that time to the current battle against the coronavirus.

“There was a sense of urgency, it was a collective effort and Flossie was at the center of it,” he wrote in an email. “Flossie and all of us benefited from this early spirit and there were a lot of great discoveries and advances done in record time (with much more primitive technology).”

Pavlakis is among the researchers who continues today to pursue possibilities of a vaccine for HIV, which so far has proved elusive. “We still use the lessons we learned through Flossie’s work,” he said.

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