Imagining the Future

City of Hope’s Dr. Arthur Riggs is creating the future of diabetes and cancer treatments today.

By: Cuyler Gibbons

Images: Courtesy of City of Hope

Lots of boys grew up reading the science fiction of Robert Heinlein, and many undoubtedly were thus inspired to pursue a career in science. Dr. Arthur Riggs—the Director Emeritus of the City of Hope Beckman Research Center, Samuel Rahbar Chair in Diabetes and Drug Discovery, and the Director of City of Hope’s Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute– was no different, except perhaps in the pivotal nature of his scientific achievements. While Heinlein was an undisputed master at creating fictional futures, Dr. Riggs has been creating the future of medicine and making it real for nearly 50 years.

Long before Riggs finished at San Bernardino High School he was certain that he wanted to be a scientist and his certainty never wavered. A graduate of UC Riverside, with a degree in chemistry—“It was a small school then, and it turned out to be perfect for me,”—Dr. Riggs did his doctoral work at Caltech on the chemistry of DNA, eventually earning a PhD in biochemistry. His thesis explored DNA replication. “Molecular biology was really what it was,” he says.

With its proximity to Caltech, an existing research institute with a roster of scientists Riggs respected, City of Hope was a perfect fit, and Riggs signed on in 1969. Studying the question of how a particular protein could recognize the specific gene, out of thousands, that it bound with, led Riggs to a collaboration with Dr. Keiichi Itakura, a specialist in DNA synthesis. Their search for an efficient way to make large amounts of the DNA Riggs was studying led in turn to the synthesis of the human hormone, insulin, the first laboratory production DNA technology.

For Riggs, the real eureka moment happened when they found the amount of DNA they could make chemically in a test tube was insufficient for their purpose. Working with Herbert Boyer and a recombinant DNA technology he had developed, the team figured out how to coax  bacteria into making large numbers of copies of the DNA they required, in effect turning the bacteria into a microscopic DNA factory. As Riggs points out, “It’s important for the lay person to understand. Up to this point, human insulin was not available (insulin then in use came from cows and pigs). We didn’t copy the natural gene. We made our own. We made a gene, that we designed so that when it was placed in bacteria it would command that bacteria to make human insulin.”

Helping to create the first source of human insulin is itself an historic achievement, but as he explains the creation of Genentech, which originated around the development of this technology, Riggs leans forward and provides the real larger context, “What you’re hearing is the beginning of bio-tech,” he says. 

Insulin, of course, is vital to the treatment and management of diabetes but Riggs’ work on cancer has been equally groundbreaking. His efforts to improve antibodies and their anti-cancer effect have resulted in the development of treatments effective at fighting many cancers including types affecting the breast, colon and blood. No less an authority than Dr. Steven Rosen, provost and Chief Scientific Officer at City of Hope, and the man responsible for guiding the institution’s research agenda says “Art is a giant in cancer research whose pioneering investigations have provided meaningful advances that benefit all of humanity.”

Riggs is now the Director of the City of Hope Diabetes and Metabolism Research Institutes, and diabetes is the disease he says he has focused on for the last 10 or 15 years. But when it comes to diabetes and cancer, it doesn’t have to be one or the other says Dr. Riggs. They are related. “The connection is metabolism,” he says. “That’s why we have the Diabetes and Metabolism Research Institute.” He goes on, “Cancer cells have altered metabolism, and diabetes is also disturbed metabolism. Approximately 20 percent of all cancer can be thought of as being caused by obesity, which causes inflammation…inflammation changes the metabolism. In our diabetes institute I think I’m not exaggerating to say about 90 percent of our facility are also working on at least one type of cancer. And if we go outside the group, perhaps 1/3 of cancer researchers are also doing work that is connected to diabetes.” This focus on the interface between diabetes and cancer may be unique to the institute Riggs has built at City of Hope. As he says “I think I can say correctly, without any caveats, I’m not aware of any other medical center where there is a deliberate focus on the cancer and diabetes connection.”

Clearly Dr. Riggs’ association with the City of Hope, its rare culture, unparalleled facilities and matchless personnel has proven a truly serendipitous connection. As Riggs says, “It’s not enough to have the idea, you have to be in a position to prove feasibility, and that means you have to have the right setting. For me, City of Hope was always the right setting.”

Like the science fiction authors he read as a child, Arthur Riggs will continue to imagine the future. And City of Hope will continue to facilitate that vision and help Dr. Riggs to make it real.

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