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Vol. LXIII, No. 13
June 24, 2011

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Asian Heritage Event Features Former NCI Scientist

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal’s first name, unusual for a Chinese-American woman, was given to her by her father who named her after a typhoon. And like a typhoon of the scientific world, she has been a powerful figure throughout her career. In 1985, she was part of the team at NIH that first discovered and mapped the genetic structure of HIV, a major step in developing HIV drugs and tests. Today, the company she founded is working to cure viral diseases such as hepatitis C.

On May 24, NIH welcomed Wong-Staal as the keynote speaker for this year’s observance of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The theme was “Leadership, Diversity, Empowerment and Beyond.”

“Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are a critical part of our visionary and innovative workforce,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins in his welcome remarks. He noted that people of Asian heritage now make up 16 percent of NIH employees, up from 10 percent in 2000.

The Shizumi Kodomo Dance Troupe shared Japanese culture through dance at the program.
The Shizumi Kodomo Dance Troupe shared Japanese culture through dance at the program.

“NIH has a vibrant Asian community. NIH was my home for 17 years and this is a true homecoming for me,” Wong-Staal said.

Her journey to NIH started on the other side of the globe. Wong-Staal was born in mainland China and left with her family to live in Hong Kong when she was just 5 years old. She made her way to the United States for college and eventually found her way to NIH in 1974.

She describes this time as “the dawn of molecular biology,” during which several important discoveries were made, including the existence of retroviruses—viruses that reproduce in a process backwards from what had been seen in cells up to that point.

Wong-Staal was interested in the question of whether retroviruses can cause diseases in humans. At the time, few labs in the country were asking this question. In fact, some people referred to such viruses as “rumor viruses.” But Wong-Staal did find one such place: Dr. Robert Gallo’s lab at the National Cancer Institute.


Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal

“At NIH, scientists can tackle high-risk research,” Wong-Staal said. “What better place to research viruses people didn’t think existed?” This “high risk” paid off, as Wong-Staal and her colleagues isolated the first human retrovirus in 1979—a leukemia-causing virus called HTLV-1—and later unraveled the genetic structure of HIV, the retrovirus behind AIDS.

“We discovered a lot of tricks the virus has up its sleeve,” Wong-Staal recounted. For instance, they found out that within each HIV-infected individual there can exist several different versions of the virus. Because of this variation and the complex nature of HIV, it was necessary for patients to take a combination (or cocktail) of drugs to fight the virus.

These drugs have been extremely successful in saving the lives of HIV-infected patients. “We’re doing quite well in this arena,” Wong-Staal noted. But she also said there is still much work ahead. “There is no cure. Patients need to be on drugs for the rest of their lives.”

Wong-Staal created the biotechnology company iTherX to bridge the divide between lab research and drugs to treat people. Today, the company is developing drugs to fight viruses such as hepatitis C, the leading cause of liver disease worldwide.

“She’s had a career beginning with basic science and resulting in the development of real therapeutics,” said Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research. He also shared some of Wong-Staal’s recent honors: In 2002, Discover magazine named her one of the “50 Most Important Women in Science” and, in 2007, the Daily Telegraph named her one of the “Top 100 Living Geniuses.”

The dancers included children from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

The dancers included children from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Photos: Bill Branson

Wong-Staal ended her talk with a message for the younger generations of Asian Americans. “Follow your passion and do not be limited by other people’s expectations of you,” she said. “We don’t all have to be scientists or engineers or doctors. I think one underserved area [for Asian Americans] is public service. We need more talent in this area.”

Wong-Staal also responded to a question from the audience asking for advice on how to succeed as a woman scientist. She replied, “Don’t always think of yourself as a woman or a minority. Don’t have that chip on your shoulder. Just enjoy what you do and the rest will follow.”

The event concluded with a performance by the Shizumi Kodomo Dance Troupe, a group that includes children from diverse ethnic backgrounds who share Japanese culture through dance. Their performance conveyed the story of Sadako Sasaki, an 11-year-old girl struck by leukemia who was the inspiration for the children’s book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. NIHRecord Icon

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