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Arthur C. Cope Award

February 12, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 7

Credit: Courtesy of Jean Fréchet
Credit: Courtesy of Jean Fréchet

Sophie Rovner

Jean M. J. Fréchet is "the dean of synthetic polymer chemistry in the U.S.," according to Harvard University chemistry professor George M. Whitesides. "His influence on the field has been immense, and I give him substantial credit for the fact that polymer science is currently an intellectually robust field," he says.

Fréchet, who holds the Rapoport Chair of Organic Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a director of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is being honored for applying the tools and techniques of synthetic and physical organic chemistry to the synthesis of new functional materials.

He has advanced polymer science on several fronts, including the use of functional polymers as heterogeneous reagents in solid-phase synthesis, the design of separation media based on functional polymers, the development of a "convergent" route that simplified the synthesis of dendrimers, the physical characterization of dendritic macromolecules, and the development of functional macromolecules for therapeutic applications, notes Robert H. Grubbs, a chemistry professor at California Institute of Technology and 2005 chemistry Nobel Laureate.

Fréchet's most far-reaching contribution probably lies in the field of microelectronics. In work with C. Grant Willson at IBM, Fréchet developed the chemical amplification method, which is now "the dominant photoresist imaging technology used in the fabrication of microelectronic devices," Grubbs says. This catalytic method enabled the faster production of much smaller electronic circuits than had been possible previously, Fréchet notes.

Fréchet developed the technology early in his career in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the time, he says, "polymer chemistry was not really well-accepted as an academic science. It was considered to be more oriented toward making products." In contrast to the chilly reception for polymer chemistry in academe, "industry was very receptive, and that probably affected my career a lot," Fréchet says. Because there weren't that many polymer chemists around, he had many opportunities to consult for companies.

Fréchet eased into the field gradually. His father was an industrial chemist who developed organic and inorganic peroxides. "In the early '50s, when I was very small, I used to go to his lab with him," Fréchet recalls. "He let me touch a few things and, little by little, I became more and more interested. I don't think there was a day when I sat down and decided, 'Am I going to do this or that?' It just happened progressively. I was aiming to become a chemist for a long time."

Fréchet earned a B.S. in chemistry and chemical engineering at the Institut de Chimie et Physique Industrielles (now CPE) in Lyon, France, in 1967. His father urged Fréchet to get further training in the U.S., believing that its graduate-level educational system was more advanced than that in France.

There weren't many places to study polymer chemistry at the time, and Fréchet chose to simultaneously attend Syracuse University and the State University of New York, Syracuse, to earn M.S. (in 1969) and Ph.D. (in 1971) degrees in organic and polymer chemistry.

Fréchet was then drafted into the French military. "They really didn't need soldiers" at the time, he notes, so citizens could fulfill their obligation by assisting in education in countries where French was spoken. Fréchet became a teaching assistant at the University of Ottawa, where he also conducted postdoctoral work.

"The bottom line is that they hired me not for my technical abilities but for my linguistic skills," he says. The university ultimately recognized his scientific capabilities, and by 1982, he was a full professor of chemistry.

During his time at Ottawa, Fréchet spent a couple of sabbaticals at IBM Research Laboratory in San Jose, Calif. In 1987, Fréchet moved to Cornell University, at a time when IBM was funding some key departments in the U.S. to develop polymer science. "IBM provided money for me to do whatever I wanted for several years," Fréchet says. "That was a remarkable situation to be in." He loved Cornell and says: "I could have lived there forever. I moved to Berkeley 10 years later because I was getting very comfortable. I thought it was time to move, to start some new things, to be the new kid on the block again."

Each time Fréchet has moved, he has canceled some of his grants because, he says, "It's good to force yourself to rejuvenate your program. In our business, there is a great danger of doing the same thing for too long."

When he got to Berkeley, Fréchet began investigating the use of polymers in therapeutics. The goal, he says, "is trying to replace some of the common pharmaceuticals that we use today with things that have fewer side effects, that target only a specific organ or disease, and so on."

He recently published results of a successful mouse trial involving targeted delivery of an anticancer agent consisting of doxorubicin linked to a dendrimer. The macromolecules are unable to slip through the walls of normal blood vessels, but they seep out of the leaky blood vessels found in tumors, killing the tumors and curing the mice of cancer (C&EN, Nov. 6, 2006, page 23).

More recently, Fréchet began work on intracellular delivery of proteins, plasmid DNA, and oligonucleotides using endosomal nanoparticles—an approach that Grubbs says "has shown great potential for application in vaccination or gene therapy."

Fréchet, who refers to himself as a synthetic chemist, holds about 70 U.S. patents and has coauthored some 700 papers. His numerous honors include the ACS Award in Applied Polymer Science (1996) and the ACS Award in Polymer Chemistry (2000). He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

But "what I'm most proud of are my students," Fréchet notes. "Research is great, it's what people notice—but what lasts is really the students."

Fréchet, who is married and has two adult sons, acknowledges that he's in a career he loves in which "there is not much life outside work." His one indulgence: "I like good wine," he says. "I have a large wine cellar with many thousands of bottles." He's loath to pick a favorite, but says, "If it is good, and if it is red, then I enjoy it." Given that he was born in 1944 in France's famed Burgundy region, did he ever consider a career in wine? "I have too much respect for wine," he says. "I wouldn't want to botch it up."


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