Press Release

 Pierre Potier, chemist, 1998 CNRS Gold Medalist

Paris, September 14, 1998

The 1998 CNRS Gold Medal was awarded to Pierre Potier, member of the Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Pharmacology, the National Academy of Dental Surgery, and Director of the Natural Substance Chemistry Institute of the CNRS (ICSN, Gif-sur-Yvette).
Pierre Potier was born on August 22, 1934, at Bois-Colombes. He holds a degree in pharmacology (Paris, 1957) and a doctorate in physics (Paris, 1960). Verly early on, he became interested in the structural analysis of natural substances, as well as in their biosynthesis.
In 1965, he invented a modification of the Polonovsky reaction (which consisted in replacing acetic anhydride by trifluoroacetic anhydride). This modification has had important consequences, since it made possible the biomimetic synthesis of many natural products.
In 1968, Pierre Potier and his collaborators began to search for new substances which could be used to treat cancers and tumors. They developed a simple biological test to select substances for making antineoplastic medication: the tubulin test. The drug NAVELBINE®, prescribed for the treatment of bronchial and breast cancers, was thus discovered at the Gif-sur-Yvette institute and developed by the Pierre Fabre laboratories.
Pierre Potier’s team also invented a process to produce, in unlimited quantity, a substance previously discovered in the United States, called TAXOL®, and made of yew bark extract. Thanks to the discovery by the Gif-sur-Yvette researchers of a precursor of Taxol® in local yew leaves, it is no longer necessary to cut down yew trees in order to make the drug. Furthermore, the biosynthesis of taxol led to the discovery of a compound which reacted positively to the tubulin test. This new product turned out to be twice as active as taxol; it was named TAXOTERE® and developed by the Rhône-Poulenc Rorer laboratories.
The two French antineoplastic drugs NAVELBINE and TAXOTERE are prescribed today throughout the world.
Most of Pierre Potier’s work is at the interface between chemistry and biology. His discoveries were made possible through the collaboration of chemists and life scientists. The international success of the two antineoplastic drugs developed by two French pharmaceutical laboratories are the illustration of an effective partnership between basic research and industry.
Pierre Potier is the author or coauthor of over 400 publications and several dozen patents.
He has taught at the Orsay Faculty of Sciences, and holds a professorship in chemistry at the National Natural History Museum. He is also Professor at Strathelyde University (Scotland). He created the Franco-Japanese society of fine and medicinal chemistry and the Franco-American chemistry society. He has been awarded many prizes in France and abroad and is member of five foreign academies; he sits on several scientific boards and on the board of directors of several charities. He was Director-general for Research and Technology from 1994 to 1996.
Pierre Potier was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and Commandeur dans l’Ordre National du Mérite, two of the highest distinctions awarded by the French government.
The CNRS Gold Medal is awarded each year to an outstanding member of the French scientific community. This is the eighth time the prize has been awarded to a chemist since its creation in 1954. The other famous chemists who have received the Gold Medal are: Marcel Délépine (1962), Paul Pascal (1966), Georges Chaudron (1969), Edgar Lederer (1974), Jean-Marie Lehn (1981), Marc Julia (1990) and Jean Rouxel (1997).

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