Dr Nik Willoughby

Senior Lecturer

+44 131 4514377



Heriot-Watt University


EH14 4AS


After graduating from University College London in 1996 with a BEng in Biochemical Engineering, Nik Willoughby carried out a PhD within the Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering at UCL. Entitled "An Engineering Evaluation of Expanded Bed Adsorption for the Recovery of a Typical Bioproduct", the study looked at hydrodynamic and kinetic influences on the performance of this novel unit operation.

After completing his PhD he worked for two years in purification development at Metris Therapeutics, before returning to UCL to help establish the Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre for Bioprocessing. This multi-disciplinary research group was funded by the EPSRC to facilitate rapid development and scale-up of bioprocesses.

Nik moved to Heriot-Watt in April 2006, as part of the ScotChem initiative. His research group at Heriot-Watt is currently focused on scalable culture, purification and separation of stem cell-based cellular therapies. Under the BBSRC BRIC initiative they are investigating scalable separation of human adult and embryonic stem cells and have just started a major SFC-funded project looking at developing a manufactured hESC-derived replacement for donated blood. In addition Nik is heavily involved in sustainability strategies to reduce CO2 emissions from chemical and biological plant using novel techniques based around cyanobacterial photosynthetic fixation. In connection with this he is about to commence a Horizon-funded project developing techniques to produce added-value protein and bioenergy products within the brewing and distilling industry.


Industrially manufactured red blood cells for transfusion

Blood Transfusion has become a mainstay of modern medical practice. However problems persist both nationally and internationally in maintaining adequacy of supply, managing the risk of transmission of infectious agents and ensuring immune compatibility between donor and recipient. There is therefore, a massive unmet and increasing clinical demand for blood which currently absorbs 3% of the NHS budget. In the UK alone 2.2 million units of blood are used each year at a cost of around £140 per unit. Thus, the UK market for in vitro produced blood could be worth up to £308 million per annum, and over £11.2 billion per annum world wide (based on a current estimate of 80 million units). Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) have unique properties in that they can be maintained indefinitely in culture in an undifferentiated state and yet retain the ability to form all the cells and tissues within the body. They therefore offer a potentially limitless source from which to generate red cells for use in clinical transfusion and a method of producing RBCs is now within the technical capability of the project members and would find an immediate market. This project is a unique strategic partnership that has been formed to translate excellent academic science into a commercially successful, demand driven and cost-effective therapy.

The work included in this 5 year project will bring the technology to a point where we can produce approximately 1,000 units of RBCs (2x1015 cells), which will be sufficient for phase I/II trials and for niche clinical application, by fully scalable methods.

(Funded by the SFC)

Fermentation process co-products: Integrated protein, energy and feedstock recovery

This project aims to use cutting edge technologies and a powerful academic and industrial knowledge base to address issues associated with waste by-product and energy inefficiencies within the fermentation process sector by developing new added value protein co-products for aquaculture and animal feed, increasing energy efficiency and reducing CO2 emissions.

(Funded by SFC Horizon)

A novel characterisation and separation technique from pluripotent human embryonic stem cells

Realising the promised benefits of stem cells and their derivatives in regenerative medical therapies or in high throughput screening platforms for drug development necessitates the development of tools to purify cells to homogeneity. Ideally, such tools should be non-invasive with a capacity for separation several orders of magnitude beyond current methods. Industrial systems for the purification of therapeutic proteins provide precedents for large scale bioprocessing. To date, the vast majority of these have focused on column chromatography to achieve desired levels of purity. However, the size, sensitivity and complexity of cells present particular challenges to the downstream engineer which are unlikely to be solved by any further evolution or modification of traditional column chromatographic techniques. Consequently, novel techniques are needed.

This project is focused on developing a novel, simple, scalable and commercially useful technique for the separation/purification of human stem cells irrespective of their tissue of origin. By using Atomic Force Microscopy to define the elasticity and electrical charge distribution on the surfaces of human embryonic and adult haematopoietic stem cells followed by the use of this information in computational models to design complimentary surfaces, we can design prototype surfaces to be used in small-scale experimental work with living cells. By focusing on both charge and elasticity of stem cell-surfaces the project seeks to produce an adsorption-based separation technology more specifically suited for cell purification than current chromatographic techniques. The use of both adult and embryonic stem cell populations will exemplify the utility of this technology to both current and future clinical and research applications.

(Funded by BBSRC BRIC)

Group Members

Dr Fiona Dempsey

Dr Jane White

Dr Craig Williams

Shreekanth Kandasamy Ramananthan

Farnaz Mohsenpour

Julio Traub