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Richard Willson, PhD

Full Affiliate Member, Research Institute
Houston Methodist


After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Willson joined the University of Houston as an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering in 1988. He became Assistant Professor of Biochemistry in 1993 and by 2003 he was full professor of both Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry. He is on the editorial board of several peer-reviewed journals and continuously mentors and trains undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. Prof. Willson has been co-founder of three companies based on technology developed in academic institutions, and has 15 patents licensed to industry. He was awarded the prestigious van Lanen Award in 2001 by the American Chemical Society and is currently the president of the International Society for Molecular Recognition. He is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and in 2005 he received the Senior Faculty Research Excellence Award from the College of Engineering at the University of Houston.

Description of Research

Richard Willson´s laboratory works on biomolecular recognition, and its applications in separations and molecular diagnostics. Professor Willson is interested in the structural determinants of molecular recognition in complexes of proteins with recognition agents such as monoclonal antibodies and aptamers. The primary techniques used in the laboratory are expression, mutagenesis, fluorescence anisotropy (kinetics), and titration calorimetry. Topics of current interest include the recognition of hen egg lysozyme by a ´homologous series´ of antibodies differing in combining site rigidity and cross-reactivity (with S. Smith-Gill of NIH), and the biophysical chemistry of aptamer/protein recognition (with A. Ellington of UT-Austin).

A second main focus of the lab is the formulation of novel molecular diagnostics and sensors. Professor Willson´s group, in collaboration with UH´s George E. Fox (co-discoverer of the Archaea), is funded by NASA´s National Space Biomedical Research Institute. The project centers on the development of molecular labels and computationally-derived probes for organisms of interest to crew health in long-duration space flight. The Fox lab identifies signature sequences associated with different regions of the phylogenetic tree, and an array of probes is developed that would allow approximate classification of nearly any organism independent of prior identification. Other applications of the technology include terrestrial infectious disease diagnosis and biodefense.

Professor Willson´s group is also collaborating with Dr. Paul Ruchhoeft in the UH Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering to design 1- micron retroreflectors to enable the ultra-sensitive detection of a label bound to a target or reporter molecule to detect an analyte or other binding event. These 1-micron cubic retroreflectors will be used as labels in 1-step assays based on self-assembly. For a complete summary of current research projects in the Willson lab, please see the Willson home page at the University of Houston

Areas Of Expertise

Molecular diagnostics Molecular labels Affinity separation Sensors
Education & Training

MS, California Institute of Technology
MS, International Society for Molecular Recognition (Program of 2005 and 2007 meetings)
PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
PhD, NIH Western Regional Center of Excellence in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases

M13 bacteriophage purification using poly(ionic liquids) as alternative separation matrices
Jacinto, MJ, Patinha, DJS, Marrucho, IM, Gonçalves, J, Willson, RC, Azevedo, AM & Aires-Barros, MR 2018, Journal of Chromatography A, vol 1532, pp. 246-250. DOI: 10.1016/j.chroma.2017.12.005

Synthesis of graphene-based amphiphilic Janus nanosheets via manipulation of hydrogen bonding
Luo, D, Wang, F, Vu, BV, Chen, J, Bao, J, Cai, D, Willson, RC & Ren, Z 2018, Carbon, vol 126, pp. 105-110. DOI: 10.1016/j.carbon.2017.09.102

Spin-Valve based magnetoresistive nanoparticle detector for applications in biosensing
Qiu, W, Chang, L, Liang, YC, Litvinov, J, Guo, J, Chen, YT, Vu, B, Kourentzi, K, Xu, S, Lee, TR, Zu, Y, Willson, RC & Litvinov, D 2017, Sensors and Actuators, A: Physical, vol 265, pp. 174-180. DOI: 10.1016/j.sna.2017.08.018

Competitive multicomponent anion exchange adsorption of proteins at the single molecule level
Kisley, L, Patil, U, Dhamane, S, Kourentzi, K, Tauzin, LJ, Willson, RC & Landes, CF 2017, Analyst, vol 142, no. 17, pp. 3127-3131. DOI: 10.1039/c7an00701a

Development of a panel of recombinase polymerase amplification assays for detection of common bacterial urinary tract infection pathogens
Raja, B, Goux, HJ, Marapadaga, A, Rajagopalan, S, Kourentzi, K & Willson, RC 2017, Journal of Applied Microbiology, vol 123, no. 2, pp. 544-555. DOI: 10.1111/jam.13493

Ultrasensitive magnetic nanoparticle detector for biosensor applications
Liang, YC, Chang, L, Qiu, W, Kolhatkar, AG, Vu, B, Kourentzi, K, Lee, TR, Zu, Y, Willson, R & Litvinov, D 2017, Sensors (Switzerland), vol 17, no. 6, 1296. DOI: 10.3390/s17061296

Colloidal Stability of Graphene-Based Amphiphilic Janus Nanosheet Fluid
Luo, D, Wang, F, Alam, MK, Yu, F, Mishra, IK, Bao, J, Willson, RC & Ren, Z 2017, Chemistry of Materials, vol 29, no. 8, pp. 3454-3460. DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemmater.6b05148

Increasing Binding Efficiency via Reporter Shape and Flux in a Viral Nanoparticle Lateral-Flow Assay
Kim, J, Vu, B, Kourentzi, K, Willson, RC & Conrad, JC 2017, ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, vol 9, no. 8, pp. 6878-6884. DOI: 10.1021/acsami.6b15728

Orientational binding modes of reporters in a viral-nanoparticle lateral flow assay
Kim, J, Poling-Skutvik, R, Trabuco, JRC, Kourentzi, K, Willson, RC & Conrad, JC 2017, Analyst, vol 142, no. 1, pp. 55-64. DOI: 10.1039/c6an00567e

A low-cost smartphone-based platform for highly sensitive point-of-care testing with persistent luminescent phosphors
Paterson, AS, Raja, B, Mandadi, V, Townsend, B, Lee, M, Buell, A, Vu, B, Brgoch, J & Willson, RC 2017, Lab on a Chip - Miniaturisation for Chemistry and Biology, vol 17, no. 6, pp. 1051-1059. DOI: 10.1039/c6lc01167e

Reducing particle size of persistent luminescent SrAl2O4: Eu2+,Dy3+ via microwave-assisted, reverse micelle synthesis
Finley, E, Paterson, AS, Cobb, A, Willson, RC & Brgoch, J 2017, Optical Materials Express, vol 7, no. 7, pp. 2597-2616. DOI: 10.1364/OME.7.002597

Recovery and primary purification of bacteriophage M13 using aqueous two-phase systems
González-Mora, A, Ruiz-Ruiz, F, Benavides, J, Willson, RC & Rito-Palomares, M 2017, Journal of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology. DOI: 10.1002/jctb.5359

Secondary oil recovery using graphene-based amphiphilic Janus nanosheet fluid at an ultralow concentration
Luo, D, Wang, F, Zhu, J, Tang, L, Zhu, Z, Bao, J, Willson, RC, Yang, Z & Ren, Z 2017, Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research, vol 56, no. 39, pp. 11125-11132. DOI: 10.1021/acs.iecr.7b02384

Enzymatic conversion of magnetic nanoparticles to a non-magnetic precipitate: A new approach to magnetic sensing
Kolhatkar, AG, Jamison, AC, Nekrashevich, I, Kourentzi, K, Litvinov, D, Brazdeikis, A, Willson, RC & Randall Lee, T 2016, Analyst, vol 141, no. 18, pp. 5246-5251. DOI: 10.1039/c6an00709k

Nanofluid of graphene-based amphiphilic Janus nanosheets for tertiary or enhanced oil recovery: High performance at low concentration
Luo, D, Wang, F, Zhu, J, Cao, F, Liu, Y, Li, X, Willson, RC, Yang, Z, Chu, CW & Ren, Z 2016, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol 113, no. 28, pp. 7711-7716. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1608135113

Flotation Immunoassay: Masking the Signal from Free Reporters in Sandwich Immunoassays
Chen, H, Hagström, AEV, Kim, J, Garvey, G, Paterson, A, Ruiz-Ruiz, F, Raja, B, Strych, U, Rito-Palomares, M, Kourentzi, K, Conrad, JC, Atmar, RL & Willson, RC 2016, Scientific Reports, vol 6, 24297. DOI: 10.1038/srep24297

PH-dependence of single-protein adsorption and diffusion at a liquid chromatographic interface
Kisley, L, Poongavanam, MV, Kourentzi, K, Willson, RC & Landes, CF 2016, Journal of Separation Science, vol 39, no. 4, pp. 682-688. DOI: 10.1002/jssc.201500809

Elimination of contaminants from cell preparations using aqueous two-phase partitioning
González-González, M, Willson, RC & Rito-Palomares, M 2016, Separation and Purification Technology, vol 158, pp. 103-107. DOI: 10.1016/j.seppur.2015.12.006

An embedded microretroreflector-based microfluidic immunoassay platform
Raja, B, Pascente, C, Knoop, J, Shakarisaz, D, Sherlock, T, Kemper, S, Kourentzi, K, Renzi, RF, Hatch, AV, Olano, J, Peng, BH, Ruchhoeft, P & Willson, R 2016, Lab on a Chip - Miniaturisation for Chemistry and Biology, vol 16, no. 9, pp. 1625-1635. DOI: 10.1039/c6lc00038j

Ensemble and single-molecule biophysical characterization of D17.4 DNA aptamer-IgE interactions
Poongavanam, MV, Kisley, L, Kourentzi, K, Landes, CF & Willson, RC 2016, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta - General Subjects, vol 1864, no. 1, pp. 154-164. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbapap.2015.08.008