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The thrill of seeing science in action

“When I began my career, the role of an academic was still very focused on applying for grants and publishing papers. Indeed, that’s what I focused on for a long time. But there came the point where I started thinking about how else I could have an impact with my work”, recalls Peter Taylor, a now Emeritus Professor of Organic Chemistry who joined the OU in 1978. “I thought to myself, we’ve developed all this academic knowledge, we know the answers, but we don’t know the questions. So, I started looking at what industry was doing and asking companies about the difficulties they faced to find new ways to apply the research to real-world challenges.”

Professor Taylor and colleagues' work with industry partners during the past 30 years has led to the development of safer chemicals with novel properties to improve everything from medicine, makeup and contact lenses to road markings and bath sealants. “Our overall objective was to make safer and greener chemicals that have more interesting properties and applications using our cutting-edge research on organosilicon compounds”, he says. “These compounds consist of bonded carbon and silicon atoms with properties such as being water repellent, colourless and odourless. They’re also non-toxic and completely safe for humans, making them ideal for a broad range of products.”

Powerful analytical applications

Organosilicon compounds are also crucial to one of the world’s most used laboratory analytical techniques, high-performance liquid chromatography (HLPC), which can detect everything from illicit drugs to vitamin D deficiency. “HLPC involves separating the individual compounds present in a sample and then analysing them”, Peter explains. “At the heart of the separation process is a long column of tiny silica particles coated with a specific material. When a liquid sample is pumped through the column at high pressure, these particles separate out each of its component compounds.”

Through a longstanding partnership with one of the world’s leading HPLC columns and accessories companies, Highcrom, Peter and colleagues developed a highly precise and reliable new analytical technique for the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test the purity of the over-the-counter excess stomach acid treatment, Zantac. “Our HPLC technique helped the FDA to identify a potentially carcinogenic impurity in the drug doctors prescribe to 25 million people in the U.S each year”, he says. “This ultimately led it to withdraw Zantac from the market in 2020, and only allow pharmaceutical companies to reintroduce it if they could prove their drugs didn’t pose a cancer risk.”

Science in action

Seeing the impact of his science in action is Peter’s greatest reward. “Looking at a product based on my research gives me the same buzz as publishing a paper, especially when it leads to safety improvements.”

Despite retiring from his full-time role at the OU in 2019, Peter is still working with colleagues to find new applications for his research, including developing tiny polymer scaffolds to support the regrowth of injured skin, muscle and other human tissue. He welcomes the growing focus on impact in academia. “I used to have a difficult time convincing colleagues of the value in engaging with industry, so it’s gratifying to see how far we’ve come in promoting and supporting researchers to take their work into the world to solve societal challenges.”