Caltech mourns the loss of a pioneering geneticist – Pasadena Now
Distinguished alumnus Arthur D. (Art) Riggs (PhD ’66), pioneering geneticist, world-renowned diabetes expert and devoted friend of Caltech, died March 23, 2022. He was 82 years old.
Holder of the Samuel Rahbar Distinguished Professorship in Diabetes and Drug Discovery at City of Hope in Duarte, Calif., Riggs was perhaps best known for his contributions to developing the technology that led to the first synthetic human insulin for treat diabetes. His research in the field of medical sciences has had a profound impact on the health and treatment of millions of people with diabetes and cancer, and helped launch the genetic engineering revolution and the biotechnology industry.
In the late 1970s, along with Keiichi Itakura of City of Hope and Herbert Boyer of UC San Francisco, Riggs developed technology that allowed bacterial production of human insulin. This breakthrough led to recombinant DNA technology which was used by biotech giant Genentech – which at the time was just a two-person company – to produce a synthetic insulin called Humulin. Humulin was the first biotech product approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. Today, hundreds of millions of people around the world use synthetic insulin to treat diabetes.
“You can’t overstate the importance of this groundbreaking work, not only for people with diabetes, but also in helping to found the field of biotechnology,” said Peter Dervan, Emeritus Professor of Bren Chemistry at Caltech, said in a tribute published by City of Hope. “Before Arthur Riggs, synthesizing human proteins was just an idea, and the potential for the biotech industry was not yet evident. What Riggs and his colleagues did turned aspirations into practice and provided a roadmap for an entirely new branch of applied molecular biology that has brought untold benefits to mankind.
Riggs also had a huge impact on human health through his research on monoclonal antibodies, lab-made proteins that act like human antibodies in the immune system. The monoclonal antibody technology developed by Riggs and his colleagues has formed the basis of drugs to treat a wide range of diseases, including breast and colon cancer, lymphoma and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
“Art Riggs has imaginatively developed new scientific tools to probe the origins of disease and improve the human condition,” said Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of physical. “His thirst for knowledge did not diminish until the end, with no regard for personal credit, and always with an eye on how he could support others, intellectually and financially.”
Over the years, Riggs and his wife have anonymously donated much of the wealth derived from these discoveries to advance scientific and medical research at City of Hope and other research and educational institutions in foreground, including Caltech. Their generous support has enabled interdisciplinary partnerships between Caltech and City of Hope researchers that have propelled advances in biomedicine and bioengineering and led to the development of new treatments for cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Their matching funding has awarded scholarships to outstanding graduate students in Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE) who are pursuing biomedical research. Additionally, the Riggs provided flexible funding to ensure that CCE researchers can take advantage of urgent opportunities to pursue promising research avenues, implement innovative educational programs, and accelerate the pace of discovery. Art Riggs has also served on the CCE President’s Advisory Council.
“Art Riggs’ legendary scientific achievements were matched by his generosity and his truly humble approach to life,” says Dennis A. Dougherty, George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry and Norman Davidson Executive Chair for the Division of chemistry and chemical engineering. “For him, the joy of philanthropy was to see the science it produced and the students it supported; he never sought public recognition or adulation.
Art Riggs was always interested in chemistry when he was 10 years old, when his mother, a nurse, gave him a chemistry kit. A California native who spent most of his youth in San Bernardino, Riggs majored in chemistry at UC Riverside and later, as a graduate student at Caltech, studied biochemistry under the mentorship of Herschel Mitchell, who is widely credited as the discoverer of folic acid, a natural compound that is essential for the production of healthy red blood cells. After completing his doctorate, Riggs studied protein-DNA interactions as a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies.
Riggs joined City of Hope in 1969 and spent the rest of his career there. He was founding dean of the institution’s graduate school (now named the Irell and Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences) and served as chairman of the Biology Division at the Beckman Research Institute in City of Hope, director of the Beckman Research Institute and president. from the Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Department. He served as Director of the Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute at City of Hope, which in February 2021 was renamed the Arthur Riggs Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute in his honor.
Riggs was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2006 and received Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2008.
Riggs is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren.
Read a complete obituary of the City of Hope.