Chemistry professor receives award and discusses research in bacteria

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BYU chemistry professor Paul B. Savage received the Distinguished Faculty Lecturer award on May 24. Savage has been at BYU for 27 years. (BYU Photo)

BYU chemistry professor Paul B. Savage received the Distinguished Faculty Lecturer award on May 24 before addressing students in a forum outlining his research in antibacterial activity. 

Savage was the 64th recipient of the prestigious award, which is the highest honor given to faculty by the university. The award celebrates faculty who have demonstrated clear superiority in research work, teaching and university citizenship.

Savage, who has worked at BYU for nearly 27 years, shared how his experiences at BYU have been a series of adventures helping him to learn and grow as a professor, scientist and person.

“I’ve come to understand the care, concern and wisdom that go into the decisions that are made here and I appreciate the selfless work of those in the administration and staff positions,” he said. “I’m so very grateful for my association with these good people.”

Savage explained how far he has come since teaching his very first class at BYU 27 years ago. He recounted his nerves building as he walked into a room of 300 students to teach them organic chemistry for the first time. Since that day, Savage has authored 250 peer-reviewed research papers and is the leader of the Savage research lab.

Savage said in his years of teaching he has learned the importance of having a love for students and a conviction that what is being taught is essential for the happiness, well-being and future success of students.

“One of my greatest joys comes from seeing students with faith, determination and hark work succeed in life,” Savage said.

Savage said although chemistry may not be the most easily applicable subject for the general population, science is the core for all five senses humans experience.

“We are kept alive through beautiful processes by which we digest food, then metabolize the breakdown products to give us molecules that are used for all sorts of important things,” Savage said. “Learning about these things helps us understand and appreciate the world around us and how our bodies work.”

Savage discussed the work he has completed in his lab. His research and training originated in organic chemistry but Savage was swept into immunology, microbiology, developing medical devices, chemical manufacturing and patent law.

The Savage Lab has developed small-molecule mimics of antimicrobial peptides and works to understand “better mechanisms of antibacterial activity, optimize medical device coatings containing these mimics to prevent bacterial colonization, and optimizing compound structures for varied applications.”

Savage told the audience how LL-37, a key anti-microbial peptide, kills bacteria all throughout human bodies and helps fight off infection.

“Your body makes the most LL-37 in places in which you are most likely to encounter bacteria; Your skin, your mouth, your intestines, your lungs, even the surface of your eyes,” Savage said. “If you didn’t make LL-37, your teeth would have rotted out within a few years.”

The professor explained how his team created molecules called ceragenins, which have the same shape as the antimicrobial peptides, but are much smaller, easier to make and are not destroyed by the enzymes released by bacteria.

“We, including many collaborators, have studied the properties of ceragenins for years and we find that they do the same or similar things to bacteria as AMPs,” Savage said. “As an added bonus they reduce inflammation around infection sites and accurate healing of tissue in bones.”

Savage explained how he patented his work about ceragenins with BYU’s technology transfer office, which protects and commercializes technologies invented at BYU.

These ceragenins have been licensed by several companies and are being used for multiple solutions throughout the world. Savage said the molecules are being used to provide antimicrobial protection to the surface of endotracheal tubes, which are placed into the windpipe during medical procedures.  

“If a foreign object is placed in or on us, it won’t have an innate immune defense,” Savage said. “We put a ceragenin in a very thin coating on endotracheal tubes to give them their very own innate immune system.

The BYU professor said he would have never dreamed of all the opportunities he has had studying chemistry, biology and immunology and drug development.

“Through all of these adventures I’ve had the chance to work with groups of wonderful, talented and creative people,” Savage said. “By watching countless students here at BYU use their education to be swept into great adventures, and from my own experience I’m convinced that our Father in Heaven has planned adventures for each of us.”

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