Flossie Wong-Staal, Who Unlocked Thriller of H.I.V., Dies at 73

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Flossie Wong-Staal, Who Unlocked Mystery of H.I.V., Dies at 73

Flossie Wong-Staal, a molecular biologist who helped build H.I.V. The cause of AIDS was discovered on July 8 in San Diego by cloning the inside of the virus and laying the foundation for treatment. She was 73 years old.

Her death at Jacobs Medical Center in La Jolla was caused by complications of pneumonia that were not related to Covid-19, said her husband Jeffrey McKelvy.

Her former colleague Robert C. Gallo said Dr. Wong-Staal was a "whiz kid" in molecular biology when she worked for the National Institutes of Health in the 1970s and manipulated the components of living things such as DNA and proteins.

Quietly and collectively, she produced dozens of groundbreaking papers amid personal and professional unrest in the laboratory when Dr. Gallo, his leader, was involved in an investigation into his controversial claim, H.I.V.

Dr. Wong-Staal was a member of the National Academy of Medicine and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame last year. Her work was so productive and influential that The Scientist magazine named her the most cited scientist of the 1980s.

"Flossie was the best of the best," said Dr. Gallo in an interview.

Dr. Wong-Staal came to Dr. Gallo, after he began examining what was then known as the obscure class of viruses, known as retroviruses. Unlike ordinary viruses, retroviruses penetrate the cell nucleus and insert their genes into the DNA of their hosts. Retroviruses have been observed in birds and mice but not in humans, and Dr. Gallo's research was initially ridiculed.

He soon discovered the first human retrovirus called HTLV-1, which caused a type of leukemia in humans. Dr. Wong-Staal got to work, examining its various parts and how the virus interfered with human DNA to activate certain cancer-causing genes, known as oncogenes. Her work contributed to a broader understanding of the role of oncogenes in non-viral cancers.

In a strange coincidence, Dr. Gallo and Dr. Wong-Staal a year after the discovery of HTLV-1 that another human retrovirus could be the cause of a new disease that was spreading across the gay community and elsewhere. The mysterious disease, eventually called AIDS, had a lot in common with HTLV-1: both were sexually transmitted through blood or from mother to child, and both infected T cells, a type of white blood cell.

Dr. Gallo and Dr. Wong-Staal turned out to be correct, but they were not alone. While Dr. Gallo and a French group led by Luc Montagnier were involved in a protracted argument about discovering H.I.V. Wong-Staal advanced science by figuring out how the virus works.

She took the virus apart and examined its genes and proteins to see what each component did. A protein became the target of the drug AZT; Another has been targeted by a class of drugs known as protease inhibitors.

In Dr. Gallo's 1991 book "Virus Hunting" became Dr. Wong-Staal quotes: "Working with this virus is like putting your hand in a treasure chest. Every time you put your hand in it, you pull out a gem."

Your virological work is now being used in the fight against the novel corona virus.

"HIV. Research has created a strong foundation for Covid-19 research," said David Ho, a Columbia University virologist who heads the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center there. "That is why it works on the vaccine and antibody front as well advancing so quickly in drug development. "

Yee Ching Wong was born on August 27, 1946 in Guangzhou, China, the son of Sueh-Fung Wong, who worked in the import-export business, and Wei-Chung (choir), a housewife. The family moved to Hong Kong in 1952.

She attended a Roman Catholic girls' school where her teachers noticed her academic talents and encouraged her to take an English name. She asked her father for help. "She said," I don't want to be another Teresa or Mary, "said Mr. McKelvy, her husband.

Her father came up with Flossie and took it from a hurricane by that name. "He said," This is you, you are a flossie, "said Mr. McKelvy.

Dr. Wong-Staal moved to the United States to study bacteriology at the University of California in Los Angeles. In 1968 she graduated with Magna cum Laude. She did her PhD in molecular biology at U.C.L.A. During her studies she married Stephen Staal and had a daughter with him. The marriage ended in divorce in 1986.

Dr. Wong-Staal worked with Dr. Gallo at the National Institutes of Health and was quickly promoted to head a group of molecular biologists. When the laboratory turned its attention to AIDS, she was the first to give H.I.V. from tissue and blood samples to something that could be examined using a labor-intensive process known as cloning.

Cloning allowed researchers to examine every part of the virus, revealing a critical facet that H.I.V. to fight so challenging: its genetic diversity.

"We now know that this diversity is huge and a major obstacle to vaccine development," said Prof. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Pennsylvania, who, with Dr. Wong-Staal worked together.

This diversity – a surprise for the researchers because other retroviruses did not have this function – enabled H.I.V. to bypass the immune system. But once they figured out the role of the individual genes and proteins, they could target them. "It was a logical next step in the characterization of a completely new pathogen," said Professor Hahn. "It was an exciting time and Flossie was responsible."

In 1990, Dr. Wong-Staal at the University of California, San Diego, where she continued H.I.V. studied and looked for new treatments and a vaccine. In 2002, she became Chief Scientific Officer of Immusol, a biotech company she co-founded. She later renamed it to iTherX Pharmaceuticals after the mission shifted from AIDS to hepatitis C. (The company is no longer active.)

Dr. Wong-Staal had a longstanding romantic relationship with Dr. Gallo, who was known in virology, and she was open to the fact that he had fathered her second child.

In interviews, she called him a polarizing figure. Dr. Gallo originally claimed that a variant of his original human retrovirus, which he called HTLV-3, was the cause of AIDS. The French laboratory headed by Dr. Montagnier hit another virus called L.A.V. before, which turned out to be the right one and later as H.I.V.

Dr. Gallo would even L.A.V. than the virus that causes AIDS, but French researchers accused him of using samples from their laboratory. This led to federal investigations, a patent dispute, and a 670-page book by journalist John Crewdson in 2002, although the fight was never fully resolved.

Dr. Wong-Staal was known for navigating through this brutally competitive, male-dominated research world with calm confidence while at the same time supporting the many younger researchers in her laboratory who had an exceptional career.

"She was strong and resilient," said Dr. Gallo. "We could be like bulldogs, but I think she could get up easier."

In addition, her husband, Ms. Wong-Staal, is survived by her daughters Stephanie Staal and Caroline Vega; a sister Nancy Yao; two brothers, Raymond Wong and Patrick Wong; and four grandchildren.

Mr. McKelvy said that he and Ms. Wong-Staal had started ballroom dancing in their last decade to recover, but that even there their competitive nature finally came to fruition. "It became a passion and she really took it seriously as she did most things," he said. It wasn't long before they took part in competitions.

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