UT professor awarded President’s Research Impact Award for key contributions to COVID-19 vaccine development

Pili Saravia, General News Reporter

While most of the nation spent 2020 hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper, Jason McLellan kept his head down and went back to his research. After all, he anticipated the virus almost six years earlier, when he noticed a 10-year recurrence pattern in past coronaviruses around the globe.

This month, McLellan won the University’s inaugural President’s Research Impact Award for his critical contribution to the COVID-19 vaccine development.

 His lab produced a stable version of the virus’s spike protein – the mechanism that COVID-19 uses to enter the body’s cells. When the spike protein is used in a vaccine, the immune system makes antibodies against the protein, allowing it to quickly recognize and fight off the virus if infection occurs to prevent serious illness. 

Many leading COVID-19 vaccines, such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, use the McLellan Lab’s technological contribution.

“It was a bit surreal (getting vaccinated),” McLellan said. “It was pretty cool to get vaccinated with something that the lab helped produce. People asked me to sign their vaccine card.”

Daniel Leahy, McLellan’s graduate school mentor at Johns Hopkins and a molecular biosciences professor at UT, recruited McLellan to UT from Dartmouth where he originally researched the virus. Access to a cryo-electron microscope and good barbecue sealed the deal, Leahy said.

The microscope allowed McLellan to 3D print the coronavirus’ glycoprotein — the spike protein that allows coronavirus to enter bodily cells — which furthered the lab’s understanding of how the coronavirus is transferred.

McLellan invented training antibodies to lock the virus’ fusion protein together, which prevents the protein from changing shapes, stabilizing and ultimately transferring the virus.

The Research Impact Award Goes to research that changed lives or people’s perspective of the world and includes a $10,000 prize.

During his time as McLellan’s mentor, Leahy said he noticed McLellan’s nature of thinking ahead which reflects his forecast of COVID-19. He said from the start, McLellan was a natural.

“(I felt) delighted that something we’ve been working on for years has actually made an impact on human health,” McLellan said.