Tag Archives: HIV

STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Flossie Wong-Staal

Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month!  If you’re not sure what that is, the official site is here.  May is almost over, but I’m squeezing this post in just in time!

Today’s STEM role model is a woman who has made tremendous strides in the fight against AIDS.  She was the first to clone the HIV virus and map its genes, and she helped to make the initial connection between HIV and AIDS.

Yee-ching Wong was born in China in 1947, but her family fled to Hong Kong in 1952 to escape Communism.   Following a basic science-track education taught by British nuns in Hong Kong, where she chose her English name Flossie, she began her higher education at UCLA in 1965.  She chose to follow on with graduate work in molecular biology.

In 1971 she married Steven Staal, and in 1972 she earned her PhD and was named the Woman Graduate of the Year at UCLA.  In 1973 her husband, a medical doctor, began working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD, so Flossie joined him there and got a job at Robert Gallo’s lab in the National Cancer Institute at NIH.

The research Robert Gallo was conducting in that lab focused on viruses that caused cancer in animals, and how those viruses affected cells.  Their work on oncogenes in animals led Flossie to be the first to find oncogenes in humans.  Flossie quickly rose to a leadership position in the lab and flourished, enjoying the research that frequently led to new and exciting discoveries.

In 1983, the NCI lab and the Pasteur Institute in Paris separately isolated and identified the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  In 1984, Flossie Wong-Staal became the first to clone and map the genes of HIV.  This was key in allowing for development of HIV blood tests.  In 1985, she was divorced but kept her hyphenated name.

In 1990, she accepted a position at UC San Diego to head their new center for AIDS research.  There she pursued multiple avenues to try to combat HIV and AIDS, attempting to find treatments, vaccines, and cures by various methods.  The most promising of these so far is a ribozyme treatment that keeps the virus from reproducing.

A widely respected researcher, Wong-Staal’s publications were once found to be the most-cited by a female researcher in the 1980s.  She was named the top woman researcher of the 1980s by the Institute for Scientific Information, and in 2002 she was named one of the top 50 female scientists by Discover Magazine.

In 2002 she left UCSD to become vice president and Chief Science Officer (CSO) for genomics at Immusol, now renamed to iTherX.  She continues to work to defeat deadly viruses,  and is particularly focused on pursuing treatments for Hepatitis C.

If you’d like to know more about this talented and dedicated researched, check out the links in the resources section below.

Resources:

http://www.usasciencefestival.org/schoolprograms/2014-role-models-in-science-engineering/371-flossie.html

http://alumni.ucla.edu/share/alumni-stories/stories/flossie-wong-staal.aspx

http://www.bookrags.com/biography/flossie-wong-staal-wmi/

http://www.biography-center.com/biographies/10406-Wong_Staal_Flossie.html

http://www.library.ca.gov/calhist/calendar10-5.html

http://www2.edc.org/womensequity/women/wong.htm

http://www.scientistafoundation.com/34/post/2013/08/meet-flossie-wong-staal-pioneer-in-hiv-research.html

http://www.fofweb.com/History/MainPrintPage.asp?iPin=AHBio0017&DataType=AmericanHistory&WinType=Free

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

First off, please don’t ask me to attempt to pronounce this one.  But don’t let my complete lack of French ability keep you from reading about this Nobel Prize-winning virologist!

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a native of Paris, earned her PhD at the University of Paris in 1974.  Beginning in her early childhood days, she always displayed a passion for science.  It was both her favorite and best subject in school.  This, combined with her love of research discovered as an undergraduate, drove her to a scientific research career that has been primarily with the Pasteur Institute (yes, that Pasteur, the guy who gave us long-lasting dairy foods) but also included the National Institute of Health and National Cancer Institute in the U.S.

In the late 1970s she joined Luc Montagnier’s group at the Pasteur Institute to work on retroviruses.  In 1982, a virologist at a hospital in Paris asked their group to look into the possibility of a retrovirus being the problem causing an epidemic disease that was on the rise and beginning to make headlines: the disease that would eventually be named AIDS.

1983 was the first year she worked full time on AIDS research.  That was the year her group was able to isolate, describe, and even photograph the HIV virus.  She was first author on the paper that reported the discovery of the virus behind the AIDS epidemic.  In 1992 she moved up to head of the Biology of Retroviruses unit at the Pasteur Institute.

A great lover of nature, she ventured from the laboratory whenever possible.  She frequently traveled to the places where AIDS was widespread or having the most devastating effects, including the Central African Republic and Vietnam.  She visited patients dying of the disease in hospitals from Paris to San Francisco.  She did not let the disease remain just a thing to be studied in a laboratory, but saw its very real and devastating impacts in person.  It is very unusual for disease researchers to actually interact with patients.

In 2008 she and Luc Montagnier were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for that initial discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  The discovery and isolation of the virus was a tremendous first step in the ongoing fight against AIDS, and she is currently still working to achieve both things that could defeat AIDS: a vaccine, and a functional cure.  She wouldn’t be satisfied with that, though – she also insists on continuing searching for a total cure once those first two are achieved.

She was often discouraged on her path to her chosen career by men who thought such scientific research was not the place for a woman.  Thirty years later, the world is incredibly fortunate that such a driven person followed her passion and is still, in her late 60s, working to combat one of the most frightening and devastating diseases of our lifetimes.

Resources:

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2008/barre-sinoussi-slides.pdf

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2008/barre-sinoussi-bio.html

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/15/francoise-barre-sinoussi-cure-aids-hiv

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/3467c5ca-bcf6-11e2-b344-00144feab7de.html#axzz2z6p5L824

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1473980/Francoise-Barre-Sinoussi

http://www.nndb.com/people/529/000176998/

http://www.amfar.org/pushing-for-better-coordination-on-cure-research/

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