March 1, 2021

Alumnus plays role in vaccine development

Wayne State alumnus Jason McLellan, Ph.D., and his research team were able to map the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike, an important initial step toward development of a vaccine for COVID-19.

When Jason McLellan studied at Wayne State University in the early 2000s, he had no idea that he was destined to play a role in research that would eventually lead to a vaccine for a global pandemic. But with his scholarly pedigree and many academic accomplishments, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

McLellan, who grew up in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, was valedictorian of his high school class, achieving a 3.94 grade point average, among many other scholarly achievements. He met his wife, Jinelle, at Wayne State, where she was on a fencing scholarship and studying radiation therapy. They have two children.

“We just loved Wayne State,” Jason said. “The restaurants, the cultural attractions and especially the robust research the university engaged in really attracted us to Wayne State. In fact, Wayne State was a near-perfect experience for me. I received the Presidential Scholarship, which allowed me to attend tuition-free and graduate without student debt. Academically, I was challenged in my classes and enjoyed being a part of the Honors program. Scientifically, having access to the terrific faculty and research was most important for preparing me for graduate school and my future career. I began research in Dr. Peng George Wang’s laboratory as a freshman and worked there for about two years, learning about organic chemistry and interacting with graduate students and postdocs.”

Jason McLellan, Ph.D., (left) and his team's research on coronaviruses has contributed to the development of several efficacious COVID-19 vaccines.

McLellan earned a B.S. in chemistry with an emphasis in biochemistry from Wayne State. He obtained his Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and then carried out postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health's Vaccine Research Center.

“It was Wayne State where I confirmed that I loved research and needed to attend graduate school to obtain my Ph.D.,” McLellan said.  “As my interests evolved, I was able to work with Dr. Ashok Bhagwat during my final year at Wayne State, where I developed a love for biochemistry and protein structure and function. These research experiences were critical for my acceptance into the biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology graduate program at Johns Hopkins.”

As a postdoc, McLellan joined a lab run by Peter Kwong, Ph.D., who was working on the possibility of a structure-based vaccine for HIV. Frustrated by the limitations of the work, a mentor suggested McLellan try out his ideas on respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), an illness that can be serious in infants and older adults.

This work led to studying coronavirus spike proteins, and McLellan and his team were able to map the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike, an important initial step toward development of a vaccine for COVID-19. “It was interesting to discover how the proteins interacted with the host cells and led to the work we did to stabilize vital proteins to isolate antibodies.”

This work eventually resulted in McLellan and his co-researchers winning a 2020 Golden Goose Award, which are awarded each year to groups of researchers whose federally funded research had led to major breakthroughs in biomedical research, medical treatments, and computing and communications technologies.

The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which allows the virus to break into cells. McLellan hopes his latest research will be incorporated into second-generation vaccines as well as provide a blueprint for the rapid response to future outbreaks.

Today, Jason and Jinelle McLellan lived just outside of Austin, Texas. He is an associate professor of molecular biosciences and the Robert Welch Chair in Chemistry at the University of Texas, where he teaches classes such as Methods in Structural Biology and Advanced Biochemistry.

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson invited McLellan to attend and contribute to the Jan. 14 virtual town hall about the vaccine, joining a panel that included Wilson, Interim Provost Laurie Lauzon Clabo, Dr. Paul Kilgore and Dr. Marc Zervos. McLellan demonstrated how a spike protein interacts with a host cell using a plastic model of the COVID-19 virus.

McLellan has high hopes that his research will eventually lead to the development of new vaccines. “Our research on coronaviruses has contributed to the development of several efficacious COVID-19 vaccines, and I hope our latest research will be incorporated into second-generation vaccines as well as provide a blueprint for the rapid response to future coronavirus outbreaks.

“I am optimistic that our work on RSV will lead to the first approved RSV vaccines and that these will substantially decrease the global RSV disease burden in our most vulnerable populations. More broadly, I believe that our work has highlighted the power of structure-based vaccine design and I hope that its application to other infectious diseases will lead to the development of many new vaccines.”

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