Asian American scientists and a healthier world

The contributions of Asian American scientists are helping people live longer, healthier lives.

Asian American doctors and researchers have pioneered HIV/AIDS treatments, improved patient care, addressed health disparities, and limited the spread of infectious disease.

Every May, the United States celebrates the essential role of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) in U.S. culture and society. Contributions include helping build the railroads that connect the east and west coasts of the United States, starring in Hollywood movies and inspiring the athletes of tomorrow.

This Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, ShareAmerica is highlighting several AANHPI researchers who advanced medical science and improved global health.

The fight against HIV/AIDS

The innovations of Asian American medical researchers in diagnosing and treating HIV/AIDS have supported the U.S. response to the disease, which has resulted in 25 million lives saved through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Chinese American virologist Flossie Wong-Staal was part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health team in the 1980s that discovered the virus that causes AIDS. Her mapping and cloning of HIV informed diagnostics and increased scientific understanding of how the virus evades the immune system.

Raised in Hong Kong, Wong-Staal moved to the U.S. for study. Researchers have adopted her methods to investigate other viruses, including COVID-19. Wong-Staal died in 2020.

Flossie Wong-Staal speaking into microphone (© Koji Sasahara/AP)
Flossie Wong-Staal, seen addressing a conference in Japan in 1994, developed methods that led to a better understanding of HIV/AIDS . (© Koji Sasahara/AP)

Filipino American physician and scientist Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga developed early tests for diagnosing HIV in children and advanced antiretroviral therapies for pediatric patients.

Luzuriaga’s work with Deborah Persaud, an American virologist born in Guyana, also led to the first pediatric patient with no detectable levels of HIV in 2013.

Advancing patient care

Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of the medical memoir My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, has advocated for increased consideration of patients’ experience in medical care.

Raised in Ethiopia by parents from India, Verghese came to the United States to finish his medical studies and cared for HIV/AIDS patients in Tennessee in the 1980s before the availability of treatments. Working with terminally ill individuals, he focused on including empathy as a key component of patient care.

Abraham Verghese standing as President Obama holds up medal on ribbon (© Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Abraham Verghese received a National Humanities Medal in September 2016 for his push for empathy in medical care. (© Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Addressing health disparities

Dr. Marjorie Mau’s research focuses on diabetes and heart disease in Native Hawaiians, a community facing significantly higher risk of diabetes and death from stroke than the general U.S. population.

The first Native Hawaiian woman endocrinologist, Mau seeks to improve health outcomes through programs for weight loss and diabetes prevention and treatment that employ local language and cultural models specific to the Native Hawaiian community.

Limiting the spread of infectious disease

When Peter Tsai invented the air-filtering material later used in N95 masks, he never expected the technology would save millions of lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A native of Taiwan, Tsai came to the United States for study in the 1980s. He later led a team of University of Tennessee researchers that developed the material to trap dust or bacteria, which enabled the creation of N95 masks, originally designed to protect construction workers.

Peter Tsai standing in front of house holding N95 mask (© Kathy Tsai)
Peter Tsai, the inventor of the material used in N95 masks, at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee (© Kathy Tsai)

Medical workers began wearing N95 masks after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 1996 learned N95s also blocked viruses. Though retired when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Tsai returned to work to figure out how to safely reuse N95 masks to protect more people.

“My invention is just an ordinary invention in an extraordinary time,” Tsai said.


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