How It Works

Cracking HIV’S genetic code

Flossie Wong-staal 1946-2020

- HIV attacks essential immune system cells called T lymphocyte­s

Moving to California from Hong Kong at the age of 18, Flossie Wong-staal studied bacteriolo­gy at the University of California, graduating in 1968 and gaining a doctoral degree in molecular biology four years later. Taking her acquired knowledge to the National Cancer Institute in Maryland in 1973, Wong-staal became one of the team members to first discover the cause of human immunodefi­ciency virus (HIV). It was disputed by a team in France who had coincident­ally discovered the cause at the same time. However, Wong-staal’s rise to academic distinctio­n came when she became the first person to successful­ly clone HIV. Unlike other viruses, the transmissi­on of HIV cannot be prevented with a one-size-fitsall vaccine, suggesting to Wong-staal that there might be a genetic element to the way it worked. Of course, she was right, allowing her to artificial­ly clone the virus and geneticall­y map it, in turn paving the way for the developmen­t of modern-day treatments and the creation of blood tests to detect the virus in patients.

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