Man from metro Detroit makes key discovery in coronavirus, paves way for vaccine

Posted at 3:43 PM, Mar 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-24 23:13:34-04

(WXYZ) — A man from St. Clair Shores is on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus. Jason McLellan’s lab was the first to make a key discovery in the structure of the virus, which paved the way for a vaccine.

McLellan is in Austin, Texas, where his team is doing breakthrough research on the coronavirus with the goal of saving lives.

When he first heard about the coronavirus in China late last year, McLellan and his team from the University of Texas at Austin jumped into action. He’s currently an associate professor of molecular biosciences.

“As soon as it was confirmed to be a coronavirus and the genome was published, we got to work,” McLellan told 7 Action News. “We had to apply all of our prior knowledge for making these stabilized spikes.”

McLellan’s lab and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had already been researching coronaviruses like SARS and MERS since 2013.

“We started working on the structure, they (NIH) began coordinating with Moderna to get the first vaccine formulated, and it’s been pretty amazing, I think in less than 90 days we went from the genome of a virus to a phase 1 clinical trial,” he said.

Normally that process can take decades. McLellan’s team in Austin had the virus spike protein mapped by mid-February.

Knowing the coronavirus structure – and identifying its mutations – means researchers can figure out how to fight it.

“We know others are using it as a probe, so we kind of use this like bait, like going fishing, and we can incubate it with cells or blood of people that have been infected with coronavirus, identify antibodies that bind to it, fish them out, and eventually those can be scaled up and injected into people,” McLellan said.

McLellan grew up in St. Clair Shores – and his parents, brother, and sister still live in metro Detroit. He went to Wayne State University before moving on to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health and now UT Austin. He says he’s proud his team was ready to lead the way in this crucial fight against COVID-19.

“We think coronaviruses are going to continue to emerge in the human population with some frequency every 5-10 years,” he said. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is create a universal coronavirus vaccine, or intervention that could be used for all known coronaviruses including ones that haven’t even emerged yet.”

McLellan said they’re already working on the next step by working with companies to make antibodies to the coronavirus so they could possibly inject those into health care workers or people who’ve recently been exposed.

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