Full Affiliate Member, Research Institute
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.
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 http://www.chee.uh.edu/faculty/willson/.