How Wayne State grad and St. Clair Shores native helped create new RSV vaccine

Posted at 10:51 PM, May 04, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-04 23:29:26-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — A man from St. Clair Shores is once again being credited for breakthrough research that led to a new vaccine — this time for RSV.

This week, the Food and Drug Adminstration approved the world’s first vaccine for RSV. It was developed by the company GSK and will soon be available to adults 60 years and older.

The achievement was made possible by 60 years of research involving many scientists including Jason McLellan, a Wayne State University graduate and St. Clair Shores native whose breakthrough discovery nearly a decade ago helped pave the way.

“It's something that we’ve been working on since late 2008,” said McLellan, who worked at the NIH's Vaccine Research Center but now works as a professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. "In 2013, we sort of hit a breakthrough: we were able to determine very high resolution structures of the proteins on the surface of the virus.”

McLellan, along with Dr. Barney Graham, helped reach this achievement. Research had been ongoing since the 1950s when RSV was first isolated. The images McLellan assisted in creating helped get a handle on this unstable protein.

“When we obtained these high resolution three-dimensional structures, we could then go in and design changes to the protein, do some protein engineering and then we were able to produce this stabilized form of the molecule,” McLellan said.

Now, roughly 10 years after their work was published, it’s being used to develop vaccines. The first now approved by the FDA.

In a study of 25,000 people, one dose was nearly 83% effective at preventing infection and 94% at preventing severe infection.

Dr. Matthew Sims, director of Infectious Disease Research at Corewell Health East — formerly Beaumont Health — says there have been many cases of RSV in metro Detroit involving older adults and encourages those over 60, especially with underlying lung issues, to get the vaccine.

“This is a big breakthrough in health care,” Sims said of the vaccine. "Over time, we learned that adults, older adults particularly and adults that have bad lung problems, are very susceptible to (RSV)... It can cause severe disease in them, even death.”

As for McLellan, he’s also credited with helping stabilize the coronavirus protein, which led to the creation of every major COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. It's another accomplishment for the 42-year-old scientist, with more on the way.

“It’s amazing," McLellan said. "I wanted to get into science to try to have some impact on humanity and public health, and I felt I'd be lucky to contribute to one vaccine. To do it twice now is pretty incredible. We have more stuff in the pipeline too that we’re really excited about, so it’s just an exciting time for the type of structure-based vaccine design that we do.”