Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

UT Researchers Hope 3D Atomic Model Will Lead To A Coronavirus Vaccine

Vivian Abagiu
University of Texas at Austin
Jason McLellan, associated professor of molecular biosciences, works with graduate student Daniel Wrapp in the McLellan Lab at UT Austin on Monday.

A 3D atomic map could lead the way toward a vaccine for the 2019 novel coronavirus, researchers at UT Austin and the National Institutes of Health said Wednesday.

The researchers mapped a part of the coronavirus called the spike protein, which attaches to and infects human cells.

“With this map we and other researchers can then begin to perform rational engineering approaches to try and design small molecules, antibodies and vaccine antigens against the coronavirus,” said Jason McLellan, an associate professor at UT and the lead researcher.

He says his lab’s atomic map will help researchers perform these activities on computers instead of having to do experiments in the lab.  

There are many coronaviruses. Some circulate among people and cause the common cold. Others started in animals and jumped to humans causing outbreaks like SARS and MERS.

McLellan has been researching these viruses for more than five years. When his team found out the virus causing sickness in Wuhan, China, was a coronavirus, they started working on this model.

“We wanted to start working on this years ago because it was clear coronaviruses have a propensity to jump species and cause outbreaks,” he said. “We anticipate there’ll be more coronavirus outbreaks in the future.” 

In the short term, they want their work to help develop a vaccine for this specific coronavirus. In the long term, however, McLellan wants to find a more universal solution.

“What my lab is ultimately trying to do is rather than make individual vaccines or interventions for each coronavirus, we’re really trying to create a universal coronavirus vaccine that would work against all known coronaviruses as well as coronaviruses that have yet to emerge into the human population,” McLellan said.

But that’s going to take time. Finding a vaccine for the 2019 novel coronavirus, McLellan says, would take at the very least 18 to 24 months.

Sangita Menon is a general assignment reporter for KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.