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Dennis Patrick Curran

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Dennis Patrick Curran

Dennis Patrik Curran

Dennis Patrick Curran is one of the world’s best-known chemists. After completing his studies, he established himself at the University of Pittsburgh where he has spent his entire career. The author of nearly 350 articles and holder or co-holder of more than 35 patents, he is one of the pioneers of organic radical chemistry and founder of the new scientific field of fluorous chemistry. He started a company that has now been in business for over 10 years. He has many prestigious prizes to his name, including the Cope Scholar Award (1988) and the Blaise Pascal Chair (2007).


This honorary doctorate comes in recognition of an exceptional body of work and numerous contributions to the field of organic synthesis. Which of your research achievements do you feel are most significant, and why?

I am very proud of our early and continuing work in synthetic radical chemistry.  I believe that we were the first to use a cascade radical reaction to synthesize a natural product (hirsutene, in 1985).  We have also developed many synthetic methods based on atom and group transfer, and studied important aspects of stereoselectivity.  We certainly were not the only pioneers in synthetic radical chemistry, but I do feel that our work helped to crack through a barrier, leading to an explosion of imaginative new radical reactions that continues even today.  While much of our research on radical chemistry has been basic in nature, there have also been significant practical consequences that we never expected at the beginning.  For example, we currently have a compound called AR67 in Phase II clinical trials for treatment of cancerous tumors.  This development came about because radical chemistry opened up new doors for us, and we decided to walk through them to see where it would lead us.


What are the most exciting aspects of your work in the relatively new field of fluorous chemistry? Are there any particularities in the relationship between basic and applied research in this field?

The most exciting aspect of work in fluorous chemistry has been seeing how it has expanded out in directions that we never envisioned at the beginning.  For example, techniques that we pioneered over ten years ago for use in small molecule synthesis have now been adopted and expanded in imaginative ways for use in macromolecule synthesis, proteomics, and many aspects of chemical biology.  We founded a company in 2000 called Fluorous Technologies, Inc. (FTI) to commercialize the components of fluorous methods and to provide technology expertise to the marketplace.  Their work, which might be called applied research, has been critical for the development of the field.  They have made available reliable fluorous reagents and silica gel for both synthetic and chemical biology settings.  They have become experts in applications of fluorous chemistry such as the synthesis of small molecule chemical libraries.  I was reluctant to start the company at first; we were having so much fun with basic research in fluorous chemistry that I just wanted to continue on indefinitely.  However, in the end it was definitely the right thing to do.  The products and materials that were commercialized by the company soon provided us and others with new and even more interesting opportunities.  In short, FTI helped the whole field leapfrog forward.


As a Laureate of the Blaise Pascal International Research Chair, you were able to spend a year at UPMC in 2007-2008. What aspects of this stay stand out in particular, both in terms of research conducted here and the general university environment?

The year in Paris was certainly one of the highlights of both my personal life and my professional life.  Although I never studied French in school, I have been trying to learn it for two decades, and there is nothing better than the “milieu français” of Paris for that. Of course I enjoyed the restaurants and the cultural life of Paris, especially the music, with my wife who commuted back and forth from Pittsburgh to Paris during my stay here. From the professional side, it was also very enjoyable to have a second and even a third research group in Paris.  Max Malacria has put together an outstanding team of researchers in his laboratory, and this provides a stimulating environment for generating new ideas and experiments at UPMC.  I also spent a considerable amount of time at ESPCI Paris Tech with Professor Janine Cossy and her co-workers.  She has been a good friend for 30 years and is one of the leading synthetic chemists in Europe.  I feel very fortunate to have had the in depth interactions with both the Cossy group and the Malacria group that a long term stay provided.  And Paris has so many other fine organic chemists in these two Universities and in the other universities as well.  Indeed, though I understand the French system well enough to see that it is not realistic, I sometimes imagine that if all the Parisian universities fused together, they would have one of the best departments of organic chemistry in the world.


As a highly distinguished American chemist and academic, how do you view UPMC’s position in the higher education landscape, both at the European and international levels?

I can tell you with certainty that the Professors and researchers in organic chemistry aspire for UPMC to be one of the leading research and graduate educational institutions in France, in Europe, and indeed in the whole world.  At the University of Pittsburgh, our Chancellor is always telling us that we have to do more with less.  Certainly the researchers at UPMC are adept at doing that.  The “rapport qualitié-prix” for research is amazing.  And the education that the PhD students get depends more than anything else on the attitude and commitment of Professors and researchers that the students work with.  Here again, UPMC excels as an educational institution.


What does this honorary degree represent for you? Is there further scope for scientific collaboration with UPMC in the future?

This Honorary Degree is certainly one of the highlights for me both personally and professionally.  It is the culmination of a long process that started in 1987 when I visited France for the first time at the invitation of Jacqueline Seyden-Penne, then a Professor of organic chemistry at the University of Paris South in Orsay.  I fell in love with France and the French language, and I was fortunate that there was a vibrant and welcoming French community in organic chemistry.  Since then, I have visited France at least once or twice every year, and have been a Visiting Professor about a half-dozen times.  I have the deepest respect for the organic chemistry community in France in general and at UPMC in particular, and I am extremely grateful for this honor.

Regarding our projects, in 2007 and 2008, I envisioned a small collaboration with UPMC that might encompass the work of one or two postdocs or PhD students.  But once the work got going in Paris, things simply exploded.  The project on N-heterocyclic carbene borane chemistry has much more potential than I had envisioned at the outset, and we now have several co-workers active in both Pittsburgh and Paris.  We have been fortunate to get funding in both Pittsburgh and Paris, and this is allowing me to spend some additional time in Paris.  We are also making full use of modern technology such as videoconferences to keep the collaboration moving quickly.  This is such a new area of research that it seems as if almost every new experiment generates more questions than it does answers.  So the research keeps expanding, and this project and the associated collaboration will certainly be a main component of our research program for the indefinite future.