Distinguished Alumnus Arthur D. (Art) Riggs (PhD '66), a pioneering geneticist, world-renowned expert in diabetes, and dedicated friend of Caltech, died March 23, 2022. He was 82.
Holder of the Samuel Rahbar Distinguished Chair in Diabetes & Drug Discovery at City of Hope in Duarte, California, Riggs was perhaps best known for his contributions to the development of the technology that led to the first synthetic human insulin to treat diabetes. His research across the field of medical science has profoundly impacted the health and treatment of millions of individuals with diabetes and cancer, and helped to launch the genetic engineering revolution and the biotechnology industry.
In the late 1970s, together with City of Hope's Keiichi Itakura and Herbert Boyer of UC San Francisco, Riggs developed technology that enabled the bacterial production of human insulin. This breakthrough led to recombinant DNA technology that was used by biotechnology giant Genentech—which at the time was just a two-person company—to produce a synthetic insulin called Humulin. Humulin was the first biotechnology product approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Today, hundreds of millions of people around the world use synthetic insulin to treat diabetes.
"You cannot overestimate the importance of this seminal work, not simply to people with diabetes, but also in helping to found the field of biotechnology," Peter Dervan, Caltech's Bren Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, said in a tribute published by City of Hope. "Before Arthur Riggs, synthesizing human proteins was only an idea, and the potential of the biotechnology industry not yet evident. What Riggs and his colleagues did transformed aspirations into practice and provided a road map to an entirely new branch of applied molecular biology that has delivered untold benefits to humankind."
Riggs also had far-reaching impact on human health through his research on monoclonal antibodies, laboratory-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 imaginatively developed new scientific tools to probe the origins of disease and improve the human condition," says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. "His thirst for knowledge was unabated until the end, without regard for personal credit, and always with an eye to how he could support others, intellectually and financially."
Over the years, Riggs and his wife anonymously donated much of the wealth earned from these discoveries to advance scientific and medical research at City of Hope and at other leading research and educational institutions, including Caltech. Their generous support has provided for interdisciplinary partnerships between researchers at Caltech and City of Hope that have propelled advances in biomedicine and bioengineering, and led to the development of new treatments for cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Their funding match has provided for fellowships awarded to exceptional graduate students in Caltech's Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE) who are pursuing biomedical research. In addition, the Riggses contributed flexible funds to ensure that CCE scholars can take advantage of time-sensitive opportunities to pursue promising lines of inquiry, implement innovative educational programs, and accelerate the pace of discovery. Art Riggs also served on the CCE Chair's Advisory Council.
"Art Riggs's legendary scientific achievements were matched by his generosity and truly humble approach to life," says Dennis A. Dougherty, the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry and Norman Davidson Leadership Chair for the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. "For him, the joy of philanthropy was in seeing the science it produced and the students it supported; he never craved public recognition or adulation."
Art Riggs had a lifelong interest in chemistry that was sparked when he was 10 years old, when his mother, a nurse, gave him a chemistry set. 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 naturally occurring compound that is essential to the production of healthy red blood cells. After completing his PhD, 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 variously served as chair of the Division of Biology at City of Hope's Beckman Research Institute, the director of the Beckman Research Institute, and chair of the Department of Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research. He was 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 was honored with Caltech's Distinguished Alumni Award in 2008.
Riggs is survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren.
Read a full obituary from City of Hope.