David Zhang

WEBSITE(S)| Nucleic Acid Bioengineering Laboratory (NABLab) | NuProbe | Torus Biosystems | Google Scholar Profile

David Zhang, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University. His group, the Nucleic Acid Bioengineering Laboratory (NABLab), invents and applies new methods and instruments for DNA molecular diagnostics. NABLab collaborates extensively with clinicians at MD Anderson, Yale School of Medicine, and the Mayo Clinic to apply new DNA diagnostic tools to cancer patient samples, in order to accelerate the adoption of precision medicine, in which patients are prescribed personalized treatments to maximize disease-free survival. NABLab technologies have been tested and validated on clinical samples from over 1000 individuals. NABLab consistently publishes results in journals such as Nature Biomedical Engineering, Nature Chemistry, Nature Methods, Nature Communications, and Cancer Discovery. In addition to his interests in academic research, Dr. Zhang is deeply committed to entrepreneurship, being a co-founder of Nuprobe Global and Torus Biosystems. These two startups have collectively raised more than $20M of venture capital funding.

NABLab is currently supported by 2 R01 awards from the National Institutes of Health, and a IIRA award from CPRIT. Dr. Zhang was a recipient of the 2019 Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering (PECASE), the highest honor to early stage scientists in the United States.

Research Statement

The Nucleic Acid Bioengineering Laboratory (NABLab) is currently pursuing three main lines of research:

(1)NABLab is interested in improving the science of DNA and RNA folding. Accurate in silico prediction of DNA and RNA secondary and tertiary structure from sequence is needed to enable reliable targeting of RNA interference and understanding of alternative splicing. Current algorithms and parameters are lacking in both accuracy and capacity, yielding only 40-60 percent accuracy and are typically limited to analyzing non-pseudoknotted nucleic acids of less than 500 nucleotides in length. NABLab takes a combined chemistry and computer science approach to revolutionizing this field: novel non-covalent catalysis techniques enable high-precision measurements of nucleic acid hybridization thermodynamics of hybridization motifs at native conditions, and novel divide-and-conquer dynamic programming algorithms significantly increase the length of sequences that can be quickly folded.

(2)NABLab is interested in the development of clinical diagnostic tools and devices based on analysis of circulated DNA and RNA. Nucleic acids are signature molecules of life, and almost all diseases possess some nucleic acid component that could potentially be used as a biomarker. Specifically, recent research has shown that a surprisingly large (1000+) number of cancer-specific nucleic acid molecules exist in each mL of blood, for even early stage colorectal and pancreatic cancer patients. NABLab is developing ultraspecific and ultrasensitive enzyme-free methods of discriminating and amplification nucleic acid biomarkers; the development of reliable enzyme-free disease diagnostics could enable frequent non-invasive screens, such as for home or primary care use.

(3)NABLab is interested in the development of nucleic acid-based molecular research tools. Nucleic acids play vital roles in biology not only as genetic information storage media, but also as active components that regulate the expression of genes. Consequently, there is intense interest from many subfields of genetics and developmental biology in the spatial and temporal distributions of specific nucleic acids. NABLab is developing molecular tools to help the study of the biological roles of nucleic acids, such as conditionally fluorescent probes for in situ hybridization and ultraspecific primers for PCR.

Research Areas

Biomedical Imaging & Instrumentation; Cellular, Molecular and Genome Engineering & Synthetic Biology; and Computational and Theoretical Bioengineering & Biophysics applied to the areas of Global Health Technologies; Translational Diagnostic Technologies and Nanomedicine.


Postdoctoral Fellow, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard Medical School (2010-2013)

Ph.D. Computation and Neural Systems, Caltech (2010)

B.S. Biology, Caltech (2005)

Honors & Awards

2019: Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE)