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UH Moment

UH Moment: “Richard Willson”

The next big thing in cancer research is actually very small.  Hear about it in this week's UH Moment.


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“Things are often a lot easier to cure if you catch them early, and our goal is to catch stuff early.”

Professor Richard Willson of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering says he thought nanotechnology was hype, but now finds some nano-tech tools very useful.  His research focuses on tiny sensors topped with antibodies that can successfully detect the presence of disease like lung and ovarian cancer—cancers that often are discovered at late stages.

“What a lot of people will tolerate is needle biopsy, but it doesn’t give you very much material,” Willson said. “Being able to extract the most information out of that tiny little sample is an important goal of several things we’re working on.” 

Collaborating with his UH colleague Dimitri Litvinov, a magnetic data storage expert, and the Methodist Hospital Research Institute, Willson is using technology that could detect a very small number, or even single molecules, in a specimen.  

“Being really good at analyzing scarce things in small samples means that diagnostic procedures that people are willing to undergo, and society is willing to pay for, can become useful in the early detection of cancers.”

The research will be ready for testing in human samples in about six months.

“A real success is when cancers are caught earlier,” he said. “We hope to play some role in this. We hope to see some of these cancers caught earlier when they’re much more treatable.  That would be a  success for us.”

Richard Willson is part of what’s happening at the University of Houston.