Wong Yee Ching
August 27, 1946
|Died||July 8, 2020 (aged 73)|
|Alma mater||University of California, Los Angeles (Ph.D., 1972)|
|Known for||Cloning of HIV|
|Institutions||University of California, San Diego, iTherX|
|Academic advisors||Robert Gallo|
Flossie Wong-Staal (née Wong Yee Ching, Chinese: 黄以静; pinyin: Huáng Yǐjìng; August 27, 1946 – July 8, 2020) was a Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist. She was the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, which was a major step in proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS. From 1990 to 2002, she held the Florence Riford Chair in AIDS Research at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She was co-founder and, after retiring from UCSD, she became the chief scientific officer of Immusol, which was renamed iTherX Pharmaceuticals in 2007 when it transitioned to a drug development company focused on hepatitis C and continued as chief scientific officer.
Wong-Staal was born as Wong Yee Ching in Guangzhou, China, in 1946. The third child in her family of four, she grew up with two brothers and a sister. In 1952, her family was among the many Chinese citizens who fled to Hong Kong after the Communist revolution in the late 1940s. During her time in Hong Kong, Wong attended Maryknoll Convent School, where she excelled in science. Although no women in her family had ever worked outside the home or studied science, her parents supported her academic pursuits. Throughout her time at the school she was encouraged by many of her teachers to further her studies in the United States. Her teachers also suggested she change her name to something in English. Her father chose the name "Flossie" for her after a massive typhoon that had struck Southeast Asia around this time.
When she was 18, she left Hong Kong to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, where she pursued a Bachelor of Science degree in bacteriology. She was graduated cum laude in just three years. After earning her bachelor's degree, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology from UCLA in 1972. She conducted her postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Diego, where she continued to research.
Her postdoctoral work continued until 1973, when she moved to Bethesda, Maryland, to work for Robert Gallo at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). At the institute, Wong-Staal began her research into retroviruses. Two years later, Wong-Staal became the first researcher to clone HIV. She also completed genetic mapping of the virus which made it possible to develop HIV tests. This led to the first genetic map of the virus, which aided in the development of blood tests for HIV.
In the late 1970s, Wong-Staal's team, alongside Dr. Gallo, conducted research on the human retrovirus, human T cell leukemia virus (HTLV), and determined that it was the causative agent in human adult T cell leukemia. Her team specifically studied the molecular virology of HTLV-1 by examining its transcriptional activators and posttranslational regulators. This discovery was significant in the study of human retroviruses as there was prior debate as to whether retroviruses could cause human disease.
In 1990, Wong-Staal was recruited from NCI to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where she started the Center for AIDS Research. Wong-Staal continued her research into HIV/AIDS at UCSD. Wong-Staal's research focused on gene therapy, using a ribozyme "molecular knife" to repress HIV in stem cells. The protocol she developed was the second to be funded by the United States government. In 1990 a team of researchers led by Wong-Staal studied the effects that the Tat protein within the viral strain HIV-1 would have on the growth of cells found within Kaposi's sarcoma lesions commonly found in AIDS patients.
The team of researchers performed tests on a variety of cells that carried the Tat protein and observed the rate of cell proliferation in cells infected by HIV-1 and the control, a culture of healthy human endothelial cells. Wong-Staal used a type of cellular analysis known as radioimmunoprecipitation in order to detect the presence of KS lesions in cells with varying amounts of the Tat protein. The results of these tests showed that the amount of Tat protein within a cell infected by HIV-1 is directly correlated to the amount of KS lesions a patient may have. These findings were essential in developing new treatments for HIV/AIDS patients who suffer from these dangerous lesions.
In 1994, Wong-Staal was named as chairman of UCSD's newly created Center for AIDS Research. In that same year, Wong-Staal was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies.
In 2002, Wong-Staal retired from UCSD and accepted the title of professor emerita. She then joined Immusol, a biopharmaceutical company that she co-founded with her second husband, Jeffrey McKelvy, while she was at UCSD, as chief scientific officer. Recognizing the need for improved drugs for hepatitis C (HCV), she transitioned Immusol to an HCV therapeutics focus and renamed it iTherX Pharmaceuticals.
That same year, Discover named Wong-Staal one of the fifty "most extraordinary women scientists". Wong-Staal remained as a research professor of medicine at UCSD until her death on July 8, 2020.
In 2007, The Daily Telegraph heralded Wong-Staal as #32 of the "Top 100 Living Geniuses".
For her contributions to science, the Institute for Scientific Information named Wong-Staal "the top woman scientist of the 1980s". In 2019, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
In 1971, while doing her PhD at the UCLA, she married a fellow student, oncologist Stephen P. Staal. The couple had two daughters (Stephanie and Caroline Vega), before divorcing around 1990. Wong-Staal later re-married to neurologist Jeffrey McKelvy, with whom she founded Immusol. She had four grandchildren.
Wong-Staal died on July 8, 2020 at the age of 73, at Jacobs Medical Center in La Jolla, due to complications caused by pneumonia.