Flossie Wong-Staal: the woman who deciphered HIV

Flossie Wong-Staal: the woman who deciphered HIV

Ever since its rise on the world stage, aids became an intriguing mystery for the medical community. It took three years to know that the syndrome, highly lethal and which set a completely atypical scenario in young people, was caused by a virus, HIV. 

But it was necessary to go beyond that, to know this organism in its entirety in order to start fighting it, and it was with this task that the work of Chinese scientist Flossie Wong-Staal, the one who was able to decipher the virus genome, was crucial.

This molecular biologist was the first person to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, as narrated by her in a profile published in the medical journal The Lancet, after her death, on July 8th 2020.

Talent at the service of health

Flossie Wong-Staal was born in Guangzhou, China, on August 27 1946, under the name, Wong Yee Ching. Her family moved to Hong Kong and she studied in a school run by american nuns. Being an outstanding student, she was driven to study science, and by the age of 18, she decided to migrate to the United States to continue her studies.

Before the trip, her professors suggested she westernized her name, so her father proposed  “Flossie”, like a typhoon that had just passed through the area. With this new name and with great determination, she arrived at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she studied up to a postdoc, in order to join the National Cancer Institute afterwards, with Dr. Robert Gallo’s team.

Dr Gallo had specialized in studying retroviruses, so when it began to be suspected that it was this type of virus that caused AIDS, the team began to study this new infectious agent.

After years of controversy over which research team had discovered HIV, today it is known that the Luis Pasteur Institute, in France, under the leadership of Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, was the first to identify HIV, but it was the Robert Gallo’s team that proved that HIV was the cause of AIDS.

A key contribution 

In 1985, Wong-Staal succeeded in cloning HIV and with this procedure she was able to explain how it worked to attack the immune system. This knowledge laid the foundation for the development of blood tests that detect the presence of HIV.

In addition, the scientist was able to identify and describe the parts of HIV, that is, the various proteins that compose it and how they interact with the cell, making it possible to start developing treatments that acted against each of those proteins specifically.

Flossie Wong-Staal’s work was not only helpful in understanding and treating HIV, but it also brought insights into virology and immunology, which is reflected in the fact that her methods continue to be used in other diseases, including the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Antiretroviral therapies developed thanks to her and many other people dedicated to research save lives and lead to better health. If you want to get a free HIV test or if you need help to start your treatment, at AHF Latin America and the Caribbean we can help you. Come to our closest office in your country or write to us on Whatsapp.