Jason McLellan and Barney Graham met in 2008 and started collaborating on a vaccine for a different virus - RSV. They eventually took what they had learned and pivoted to coronaviruses.
"In 2018, I moved down to UT Austin," said McLellan, currently a professor of molecular biosciences. "Barney and I continued to work on coronaviruses, always fearing the next outbreak."
McLellan got a call from Graham, the former director of the NIH Vaccine Research Center, in January 2020 about a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. "He wanted to put together a team to try and create a vaccine - the fastest vaccine ever created - just in case this could turn into a global pandemic," he said.
They had also already established a partnership with Moderna prior to the outbreak. "We’d been working on this steadily and so the fact is it was somewhat serendipitous," said Graham. "We kind of knew what to do at the right time and had the facility and we were in the right place to do it."
McLellan and Graham's technology is now used in Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines.
Instead of creating a spike protein and then injecting a person with it, their technology essentially teaches the body to make its own. Then, if infected with the actual virus, the body’s immune system knows how to react.
"We train our immune systems to recognize this locked form of the protein and then later, when it encounters the virus, our immune system already has the antibodies and T cells and B cells that will recognize the virus and attack it and prevent it from infecting us," said McLellan.
For both scientists, seeing their work utilized worldwide is bittersweet as the pandemic continues. Along with their scientific research, they have both spent time answering questions at town halls and other outreach events, hoping to encourage more people to get vaccinated.
In the meantime, they’re working on other projects - like a universal coronavirus vaccine - and trying to stay a step ahead.
"I think one of the challenges ahead of us is how to use all these new tools and technologies to be better prepared and not let it get to the point of a pandemic," said Graham. "To recognize things earlier, and to deal with regional problems before they become a global problem."
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