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COVID-19 researcher has ties to Geisel School of Medicine

  • Jason S. McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences, left, and graduate student Daniel Wrapp, right, work in the McLellan Lab at The University of Texas at Austin on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. While at the Geisel School of Medicine's Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, McLellen was amongst those doing research that led to a COVID-19 vaccine. (The University of Texas at Austin - Vivian Abagiu) UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN — Vivian Abagiu

  • Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences, and others work in the lab at The University of Texas at Austin on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. While at the Geisel School of Medicine's Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, McLellen was amongst those doing research that led to a COVID-19 vaccine. (The University of Texas at Austin - Vivian Abagiu) Vivian Abagiu—College of Natural Sciences...

  • Nianshuang Wang, research associate, and others work in the lab on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020 at The University of Texas at Austin. (The University of Texas at Austin - Vivian Abagiu) Vivian Abagiu—College of Natural Sciences...

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/25/2021 8:30:39 PM
Modified: 1/25/2021 8:30:38 PM

HANOVER — Shortly after Chinese researchers published the genetic sequence of the virus that causes COVID-19 a little more than a year ago, a group of U.S. researchers designed what would become key components of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines that began making their way into people’s arms last month.

The speed of the vaccines’ development was possible because decades of research had laid the groundwork for them, said Jason McLellan, whose molecular biosciences laboratory was based at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth from 2013 to early 2018, before it moved to the University of Texas at Austin. His move was necessary, he said in a phone interview earlier this month, because UT has the “multimillion-dollar microscopes” he needs for his structural biology work.

“People shouldn’t be alarmed by how quickly these vaccines were developed,” McLellan said, adding that much of the speed was possible due to the simultaneous manufacturing of the vaccines while clinical trials were ongoing, knowing that if they didn’t work they would be tossed.

McLellan and his collaborators, including teams at Scripps Research and the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had previously described coronavirus spike proteins or “that club-like protein that sticks out from the virus,” as McLellan explained. They focused on the coronavirus family because earlier infectious disease outbreaks such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) were caused by other members of the same family and they knew another could strike again.

The researchers described both how these spikes look and how they act, which is “like transformers” to bind to a cell and infect it, he said.

They also knew, based on their prior work, that they could manipulate the spike proteins and stabilize them, preventing them from binding to cells or causing infection. The stabilized proteins can stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies to respond in the event that it is faced with the virus.

All this background work meant that when the Chinese researchers published the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on Jan. 10, 2020, McLellan’s team was ready to determine the structure of the spike protein and identify how to stabilize it.

The mRNA included in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are now gradually being distributed across the United States and elsewhere, instruct immune cells to make the stabilized protein to stimulate an immune response. The stabilized proteins McLellan and others developed also are part of the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccines, which are still going through clinical trials.

Charles Barlowe, chair of biochemistry and cell biology at Geisel, credited McLellan with being “an exceptional scientist” and described McLellan’s finding of how to introduce mutations to stabilize spike proteins as “a very significant advance.”

Barlowe also credited McLellan with being a “wonderfully collaborative scientist” who works in large groups to answer questions.

One of the members of McLellan’s team is Daniel Wrapp, a post doctoral fellow in McLellan’s lab who earned his Ph.D. from Dartmouth in November. Wrapp followed McLellan to Austin, as a graduate student, but remained enrolled at Dartmouth.

Wrapp said he enjoyed his time at Geisel in part because of the collaborative spirit engendered by the Upper Valley’s relative isolation.

“I think having that sort of physical isolation fosters a real sense of community amongst people working right next door,” he said.

In some ways the scientists’ behind-the-scenes work has remained the same amid the pandemic, Wrapp said in a phone interview. But, he said, it has added urgency. And when some of his friends who are physicians began getting the shots and texting him about it last month, “that was really exciting,” Wrapp said.

McLellan’s wife, mother and sister all got their first shot of the Pfizer vaccine earlier this month, he said, noting that his wife and sister work in health care. Wrapp, who is 27, said he expects he won’t get it for a while and even his grandmother in Florida has been having trouble getting a shot.

“I’m definitely sympathetic to the desire to get back to normal,” Wrapp said.

McLellan said he’s experienced an “odd mixture of emotions” this year. It’s been exciting to see his work “directly translate” to have a positive impact on human health. His group also has been involved in the development of Eli Lilly’s bamlanivimab antibody treatment for COVID-19. But in the meantime he and his team have to work in the lab in shifts to limit their contact with others. And he’s watched as hundreds of thousands of people have died — the U.S. recently surpassed 400,000 deaths due to COVID-19.

The researchers’ future goals include developing a universal coronavirus vaccine that would inoculate people against all viruses in the family.

“Science takes time,” McLellan said. “We fail a lot. … Over time the field moves in the right direction.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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