Jason McLellan, a faculty member in the Department of Molecular Biosciences, has been selected as the 2021 Texas Inventor of the Year for his role in biomedical research linked to the development of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. The award is given annually by the State Bar of Texas’s Intellectual Property Law Section in recognition of an individual whose invention “has significantly impacted the Texas economy.”
McLellan, who holds the Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry, was part of the scientific team behind a consequential invention that helps to create a strong antibody response to the coronavirus.
McLellan and his former postdoctoral researcher Nianshuang Wang collaborated with scientists at the National Institute of Health’s Vaccine Research Center and at Scripps Research Institute in discovering a way to stabilize the spike protein, the part of the coronavirus capable of infecting cells. Wang and McLellan experimented to determine ways of altering the otherwise shape-shifting protein so that it stayed in the form it takes before fusing with human cells. Stabilizing it this way has been shown to elicit a stronger antibody response.
The vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson and Novavax all use the patented technology McLellan and the team developed in 2017, when he was a faculty member in Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. The invention also has applications for treatments such as antibody therapies.
McLellan and Wang relocated to The University of Texas at Austin in 2018. Over a weekend in early January 2020, the pair along with then-graduate student Daniel Wrapp, applied their approach to a newly identified virus, SARS-CoV-2, and sent the results to their collaborators at the NIH, who had teamed up with Moderna. This version of the spike protein was used weeks later when the first U.S. COVID-19 vaccine entered human trials and by other vaccine manufacturers in the months that followed.
In March of 2021, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved Patent No. 10,960,070, “Prefusion Coronavirus Spike Proteins and Their Use.”
To date, hundreds of millions of people across the globe have been immunized against COVID-19 with vaccines that use the team’s spike protein technology.