Richard Willson’s laboratory works on biomolecular recognition, and its applications in bioseparations and molecular diagnostics. The group is highly interdisciplinary, including engineers, biochemists, biomedical engineers, and the occasional electrical engineer or computer scientist. We collaborate closely with several clinicians and pathogen experts, and with nano-fabrication and materials experts who bring complimentary skill sets to our projects.

Purification of proteins and nucleic acids

Proteins, DNA, and messenger RNA have become major classes of medicines.  Biopharmaceuticals represent a research-intensive market of over $160 billion per year, production scales measured in tons, and the leading approaches to major diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s.

We have a long-standing interest in the purification of proteins, RNA and DNA, by chromatography and selective precipitation.  Several students from the group have reached CEO, VP, and technical-lead status in drug companies including Pfizer, Amgen and Merck. Prior projects have included the first single-molecule measurements of protein chromatographic adsorption, the characterization of protein ion-exchange adsorption by directed mutagenesis, titration calorimetry and computational electrostatics, and the development of several new methods of DNA and RNA purification.  Current interests include new approaches to purification of antibodies, and fundamental investigations of transport and binding in affinity adsorbents.

Point-of-care diagnostics and assays

A major current focus of activity in the lab is the development of clinical diagnostics for infections and diseases, and field-portable methods for detection of toxins and contaminants.  Our preferred format is the lateral-flow immunoassay (the “home pregnancy test” format) in which reporter particles form a visible line when analyte-bridged to capture antibodies immobilized on a wicking matrix.  We have introduced two new types of reporter particles, nanophosphors and enzyme-decorated phage particles, which make these tests much more sensitive, and (with phosphors) highly quantitative.  We collaborate on phosphors with Jokoah Brgoch of UH and a lab spinoff company called Luminostics, and on transport and binding fundamentals with Jacinta Conrad of UH CHBE. 

Ultrasensitive detection

We have several projects aimed at inexpensive, practical detection of cancer and other biomarkers, toxins and pathogens. With Dmitri Litvinov of UH (formerly Seagate) we are seeking to adapt the GMR technology of data-storage hard disk drives to produce a biosensor array of extremely high feature density and number (millions), capable of single-molecule detection (using 100 nm magnetic particle labels).

We also collaborate with Jiming Bao and Wei-Chuan Shih of UH ECE on nano-fabricated optical sensing devices for sensitive, inexpensive detection of proteins, pathogens and nucleic acids.