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Cal's Alum of the Year, 92, Biochem Pioneer

With two colleagues, Frank Davis developed a breakthrough biological method for delivering drugs into the body that has helped millions of people. Davis, now 92 and a resident of El Cerrito, has been named UC Berkeley's Alumnus of the Year.

The newly named UC Berkeley Alumnus of the Year 2013 – Frank Davis of El Cerrito – vividly recalls an encounter he had more 60 years ago at UC Berkeley.

Davis, now 92, was a Cal doctoral student working in his biochemistry lab when three young scientists walked through on a visit to Berkeley. The trio – who were later to achieve enduring fame and a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the double helix molecular structure of DNA – were Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins. 

Their discovery was an inspiration for Davis and reinforced his own devotion to nucleic acid chemistry. After receiving his Ph.D. from Cal in biochemistry in 1955, Davis became a professor at Rutgers University, where he and two colleagues made a breakthrough of their own.

"He and two colleagues were awarded a patent in 1979 for a new biological method of delivering drugs to the human body, called PEGylation," according to an announcement from the Cal Alumni Association, which selected Davis for the Alumnus of the Year honor.

"Based on this discovery, Davis co-founded Enzon Corp. in 1981 and was able to demonstrate the technique's effectiveness and minimal side effects," the Alumni Association said. "His innovation, now being employed by major pharmaceutical manufacturers, has since helped millions of people suffering from immunodeficiency diseases and many other ailments."

Davis told Patch he was delighted by the honor.

"I was very proud to be selected," he said in a telephone interview from his home in the El Cerrito hills.

Davis, who moved to El Cerrito in 1989 after his retirement from three decades at Rutgers, said he and his late wife had wanted to settle in the East Bay and picked El Cerrito.

Davis, who was raised in Oregon, said he originally chose to pursue his Ph.D. studies at Cal because of faculty excellence.

"It just happened that the quality of teaching at UC Berkeley impressed me very much," he said.

He got a relatively late start on his doctorate because of World War II, during which he served as a civilian working on aircraft, first in Santa Monica and then in Iran, where he reassembled fighter planes, he said.

He said he still remembers the day that Wilkins, Watson and Crick walked through his lab, and the dynamic frontier that their discovery helped expand.

"I was very excited," he said.

Asked what he would advise aspiring scientists to study now, he said the genetic code has been largely understood and that "regulation of the gene" – which he described as "much more complex than the genetic code itself" – is ripe for further discoveries. 

Davis will be recognized for his achievements at the Alumni Association's Charter Gala on March 16 at the Palace Hotel in San Franciso. The event marks the 145th anniversary of the university and 141th anniversary of the association's founding.

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