Researcher profile


Professor Rob Woods

Introducing Rob Woods

Originally from Ontario, Canada Prof Woods has joined NUIG from the University of Georgia to develop a research and PhD training programme in Computationally-Guided Glycoscience.

In essence, his team will use and develop computational methods to predict how carbohydrates bind to their protein receptors, and use this knowledge to develop carbohydrate-specific biosensors for use in disease diagnosis and treatment.

Learning how to strengthen the interactions between a carbohydrate and a protein is at the heart of Woods’ research, which can provide answers to two challenging questions. First, how to convert a carbohydrate into a drug that will inhibit the natural interaction.   And second, how to alter a protein to make it bind more tightly to a sugar, the flip side of the first question.

In response to the first question, preventing interactions, Woods’ lab is investigating antiviral adhesive agents to prevent viral infections and applying their findings to influenza; chosen because of the potential for a pandemic. In response to the second, the group is working on the development of diagnostics for cancer markers with a focus on pancreatic cancer, one of the more virulent forms of cancer with a mortality rate of over 90%.   Early detection of all cancers, preferably by non-invasive surveillance, is needed for all cancers, but particularly for the most aggressive forms.

Having received his PhD at Queen’s University, Canada, Woods completed his postdoctoral studies at the Glycobiology Institute at the University of Oxford where he began the development of the GLYCAM force field for carbohydrate modeling. GLYCAM, relies upon a molecular simulation package called AMBER, which was developed by an American scientist named Peter Kollman, who himself died prematurely of pancreatic cancer in 2001.   “We could work on any disease we want, and most scientists have their own motivations, but this felt like an appropriate focus, Peter was a generous and enthusiastic role model for everyone in the field.”

Professor Wood's Team

Since his arrival in Galway, Woods has set up a strong team to help realise his research. Dr. Elisa Fadda joined from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. A Research Fellow in biosensor design, she has expertise in using computational methods to study enzyme mechanisms. Fadda will be working on the interaction of proteins and carbohydrates to provide a theoretical basis for the development of carbohydrate-biosensors.   Dr. Lori Yang is a Research Fellow who joined from La Jolla Bioengineering Institute in California and has vast experience in high throughput screening of protein-ligand interactions. Dr Nina Weisser, with experience in molecular biology and protein engineering.   Yang and Weisser provide the experimental expertise to test the theoretical results from Fadda.  

As Woods explains, “No other research group so closely integrates strong computational and experimental skill sets. But the best way to get a fast turnaround is to conduct the experiments ourselves, in a group with tight integration. This way, we get rapid knowledge of the accuracy of our models.”

The group will be working with Hewlett Packard through the recently formed Institute of Biomedical Informatics (IBI), which will act as a vehicle for dissemination of the technologies developed in Woods’ lab.   This will allow for extensive interaction with a number of pharmaceutical companies; the presence of which in Ireland has built a critical mass of interest in Glycoscience, a key factor in Woods’ decision to establish a base in Galway.

The strength of funding from the Science Foundation Ireland was vital to his move, and Woods is hoping to secure further support from SFI to fully develop the first Computational Glycoscience Programme in the world. “We’ll be using techniques routinely applied in drug design, but never applied to anything other than anecdotal examples, in carbohydrate-based therapeutic design. We’ll be the first to put a rigorous effort into it.”

“In many parts of the world, funding for science is decreasing making it hard to be innovative. Here there’s an opportunity for innovation that’s been fostered by SFI and by Terry Smith. There is a potential here that’s worth committing a life-change for.”

By maintaining his position at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, he hopes to leverage the strengths of each institute.   “Scientific research is a global initiative, and it is exciting that both the University of Georgia and the National University of Ireland, Galway see the benefits of a strong inter-institutional alliance”.   Such an interaction provides a mechanism for establishing student and researcher exchange programs, as well as for the sharing of scientific data.

“In many parts of the world, funding for science is decreasing making it hard to be innovative. Here there’s an opportunity for innovation that’s been fostered by SFI and by Terry Smith. There is a potential here that’s worth committing a life-change for.”

Rob Woods

Rob Woods