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Richard Willson

Richard Willson Our Faculty

Richard Willson

Distinguished Visiting Professor in Biotechnology Engineering

School of Medicine and Health Sciences


Medical diagnostics
Molecular biology
Immunochromatographic diagnostics
Process analytical technology (PAT)

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Dr. Willson is a renowned researcher in biomolecular recognition and its applications. He has an extensive career at the University of Houston, where he currently serves as Huffington-Woestemeyer Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering and Biochemistry. Since 2008, he has been an Affiliate in the Quantitative and Computational Biology Program at Baylor College of Medicine and since 2007, he has been a prominent Senior Affiliate Member in the Cancer program at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.
He was Theme Leader in Diagnostics at the NIH Western Regional Center of Excellence in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. 

At the University of Houston, he teaches chemical engineers biological and physical chemistry and statistical/numerical techniques.

He and his research group work in biomolecular recognition with monoclonal antibodies, DNA, and aptamers. They explore the techniques of expression, mutagenesis, fluorescence anisotropy (kinetics), and titration calorimetry.

In the area of bioseparations, his recent work focuses on antibody purification. He leads one of the few engineering groups developing new methods of nucleic acid separations with applications both at the laboratory and at a production scale, like the metal-chelate affinity, also known as Immobilized Metal Affinity Chromatography (IMAC). The IMAC allows a more precise selection between plasmid (for example, a DNA vaccine) and a contaminating genomic DNA despite their chemical similarity. He also has been active in RNA purification.

In the area of molecular diagnostics and sensors, his research group alongside external stakeholders, uses computer technology to identify genome sequences, which they apply to: create custom DNA arrays to identify pathogens; develop RT-PCR primers to identify viruses (viral sequences) among human DNA; engineer hybridization-responsive fluorescent probes for those sequences.

Also, they have improved immuno-chromatographic assays, which is a diagnostic format known as the basis of the home pregnancy and home COVID-19 tests. These tests can be up to 1,000 times as sensitive as standard assays, leading to more effective detection of viral infections in the blood. They also introduced strontium aluminate phosphorescent nanoparticles derived from glow-in-the-dark materials as detectors for tests. This technology was commercialized by Luminostics, Inc., which was accepted into Y Combinator, the incubator of enterprises like Airbnb, and has FDA authorization for a home COVID-19 diagnostic test. Another of his and his team’s major contributions is the development of a home test to detect nephritis in patients with Lupus, the autoimmune disease, early enough for medical intervention.

Richard Willson is part of the editorial board of several relevant publications in his field such as PLOS One, the Journal of Biophysics, F1000, Biotechnology Progress, and the Journal of Molecular Recognition.

In the course of his career, he has been recognized with several awards and honors, like the Alan S. Michaels Award on the Recovery of Biological Products (2021); the Esther Farfel Award (2020), which is the highest faculty award of the University of Houston given for research, service, and teaching; and the Pierce Award in Affinity Technology by the International Society for Molecular Recognition (2015).

Back in 2012 and due to his expertise in nucleic acid purification, he was selected to serve on the founding Technical Advisory Board of Moderna, Inc., which later developed the mRNA-based vaccine for COVID-19.

In addition, his professional distinctions include being a Fellow of the most relevant societies and associations in his field in the United States such as the American Chemical Society, the U.S. National Academy of Inventors, the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Since 2018, he is a co-Principal Investigator for the FDA Western National Pediatric Device Consortium.

Richard Willson joined Tecnológico de Monterrey as Distinguished Visiting Professor in Biotechnology Engineering for the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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Education and Training

  • Postdoctoral fellow, Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • M.Sc., Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
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  • Goux, Heather & Vu, Binh & Wasden, Katherine & Alpadi, Kannan & Kumar, Ajay & Kalra, Bhanu & Savjani, Gopal & Brosamer, Kristen & Kourentzi, Katerina & Willson, Richard. (2023). Development of a quantitative fluorescence lateral flow immunoassay (LFIA) prototype for point-of-need detection of anti-Müllerian hormone. Practical Laboratory Medicine. 35. e00314. 10.1016/j.plabm.2023.e00314. 

  • Lei, Rongwei & Vu, Binh & Kourentzi, Katerina & Soomro, Sanam & Danthanarayana, Adheesha & Brgoch, Jakoah & Nadimpalli, Suma & Petri, Michelle & Mohan, Chandra & Willson, Richard. (2022). A novel technology for home monitoring of lupus nephritis that tracks the pathogenic urine biomarker ALCAM. Frontiers in Immunology. 13. 10.3389/fimmu.2022.1044743.

  • Nandy, Suman & Crum, Mary & Wasden, Katherine & Strych, Ulrich & Goyal, Atul & Maranholkar, Vijay & Mo, William & Vu, Binh & Kourentzi, Katerina & Willson, Richard. (2022). Protein A–Nanoluciferase fusion protein for generalized, sensitive detection of immunoglobulin G. Analytical Biochemistry. 660. 114929. 10.1016/j.ab.2022.114929. 

  • Ortiz-Martinez, Margarita & González-González, Mirna & Martagon, Alexandro & Hlavinka, Victoria & Willson, Richard & Rito-Palomares, Marco. (2022). Recent Developments in Biomarkers for Diagnosis and Screening of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Current Diabetes Reports. 22. 10.1007/s11892-022-01453-4. 

  • Chavan D, Chen H, Crum M, Vu B, Safari M, Smith M, Vekilov P, Conrad JC, Kourentzi K, Willson RC., "Neutral DNA-avidin nanoparticles as ultrasensitive reporters in immuno-PCR." Analyst. doi: 10.1039/d0an00134a., 2020

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