UT Austin's McLellan Receives O'Donnell Award in Medicine

December 9, 2021 • by Staff Writer

UT Austin structural biologist Jason McLellan, Ph.D., is the recipient of the 2022 Edith and Peter O'Donnell Award in Medicine from TAMEST (The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas). He was chosen for his breakthrough research in mapping, modifying, and stabilizing coronavirus spike proteins, which paved the way for the creation of leading COVID-19 vaccines.

​Dr. McLellan, Welch Chair in Chemistry and Professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at The University of Texas at Austin, has been working on coronaviruses since 2013.

His team of structural biologists created the first three-dimensional structure of the coronavirus spike protein, a shape-shifting protein that allows the virus to enter and infect human cells. This blueprint of the protein enabled McLellan and his researchers to modify the spike and help stabilize it in a form that is optimal for use in vaccines.

His research laid the groundwork for vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax. They all utilized his spike protein discovery in their efforts to create and distribute life-saving vaccines.

"By discovering ways to stabilize the spike protein, the part of the coronavirus capable of infecting cells, Dr. McLellan's work uncovered a critical invention that helps to create a strong antibody response to the coronavirus," said Nancy Moran, professor of integrative biology at UT Austin. "Once the map is created, Dr. McLellan's team can rationally determine changes to the virus molecule to create a vaccine not normally found in nature. The implications his research has for the future of vaccines is simply stunning, with applications for a wide range of deadly viruses threatening people around the globe."

Dr. McLellan is one of four Texas-based researchers receiving the TAMEST 2022 Edith and Peter O'Donnell Awards. Each are chosen for their individual contributions addressing the essential role that science and technology play in society, and whose work meets the highest standards of exemplary professional performance, creativity and resourcefulness.

"Beyond just the state of Texas, Dr. McLellan's research on stabilizing coronavirus spike proteins has saved countless lives around the world and we are honored to present him with the 2022 Edith and Peter O'Donnell Award in Medicine," said TAMEST Board President David E. Daniel. "The pandemic has been hard on all of us, and we are honored to recognize Dr. McLellan's dedication and foresight in creating virus antigens that continue to be utilized in vaccines. We can't wait to see how he will utilize this research next."

Dr. McLellan will be recognized at the 2022 Edith and Peter O'Donnell Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2022 and will give a presentation on his research preceding the award ceremony at the TAMEST 2022 Annual Conference, Forward Texas – Imperatives for Health in San Antonio, Texas at the Westin Riverwalk Hotel. 

​Adapted from an announcement by TAMEST.