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McLellan Honored for Contributions to COVID-19 Vaccines

McLellan Honored for Contributions to COVID-19 Vaccines
Photo by Vivian Abagiu

Jason McLellan, UT Austin molecular biosciences professor, has received the 2021 Shirley Bird Perry Longhorn Citizenship Award, recognizing the wide-reaching impact of his work with viral proteins, especially his contributions to COVID-19 vaccines. The award is given annually by UT Austin's Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

"In the midst of a global pandemic that has altered the lives of everyone everywhere, there has been no task more noble than contributing to research that produces safe and effective vaccines," University President Jay Hartzell said, at the institute's "Great Conversations 2021" event on September 28th, where the award was bestowed on McLellan.

McLellan and his team began working on determining the structure of coronavirus spike proteins in 2015, following earlier coronavirus outbreaks (SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012). Their experience working with coronaviruses allowed them to quickly determine an appropriate vaccine strategy, and before the end of January 2020, they had produced a high resolution, three-dimensional map of the spike protein found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

The team created a modified, more stable version of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which was used in the vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax.

"My lab was ready for duty—with my whole team of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and with my colleagues and their graduate students and postdocs who played really important roles, too," said McLellan, the Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry. "The development of COVID-19 vaccines in record time is a testament to their hard work."

McLellan's research has also facilitated the development of vaccines for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), one of the leading causes of infectious disease deaths in infants. Some of those vaccines are currently in Phase 3 clinical trials. He and other UT researchers also helped in creating a second-generation COVID-19 protein for vaccines, which is currently in Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials in different parts of the globe and has the potential to create affordable vaccines in areas where they are most needed.

"​​As scientists… we get to do what's called basic research, sometimes on things that sound like minutiae," McLellan said. "That's how science works. We set a broad foundation of knowledge, and we do it together, so that when a crisis strikes a lot of the most important work has already been established, and we are ready to rise to the moment."

The Shirley Bird Perry Longhorn Citizenship Award recognizes UT Austin students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni for individual or collective acts that bring honor to the University community and positively impact civic life. Previous recipients of the Longhorn Citizenship Award include UT Austin President Emeritus Larry Faulkner, Ford Foundation President and UT alumnus Darren Walker and U.S. Admiral Bobby Inman, professor emeritus in the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

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Wednesday, 08 December 2021

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