Arthur Riggs smiles for the camera
Arthur Riggs smiles for the camera

Geneticist Arthur Riggs Dies at 82

His research paved the way for the development of synthetic insulin to treat diabetes.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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Apr 14, 2022

ABOVE: City of Hope

Arthur Riggs, whose work with recombinant DNA led to the development of synthetic insulin, has died from complications of lymphoma. He was 82.

Born in California on August 8, 1939, Riggs spent his childhood in San Bernardino. His father managed a trailer park and his mother, a nurse, bought Arthur his first chemistry set as a child, inspiring a love of science from a young age. “I thoroughly enjoyed mixing reagents and getting changes in color and carbon dioxide release,” Riggs told PNAS for a 2010 profile. “That and reading science fiction got me enthusiastic about science in junior high school.”

Riggs studied biology and chemistry at the University of California, Riverside, and, according to the PNAS profile, particularly enjoyed where those specialties intersected. He married Jane Merrill in 1960 and began graduate school at Caltech in biochemistry the following year. 

During graduate school, Riggs met Joel Huberman. When not working on their thesis projects, the pair collaborated on what would become a landmark paper that used autoradiography to image DNA replication and was published in 1966. Riggs received his doctorate that same year and then went to the Salk Institute for a postdoc studying transcription factors.

In 1969, Riggs took a position at City of Hope, a nonprofit organization in Duarte, California, where researchers investigate treatments for diabetes, cancer, and more. In the mid-1970s, he partnered with a small biotech startup and used recombinant DNA to fuse DNA encoding synthetic peptides to E. coli’s lactase gene, ultimately resulting in the production of a protein akin to a mammalian hormone. Following this proof of concept, the approach was used to make snippets of human insulin. At the time, diabetes was treated using cow insulin, which was less than ideal as it caused allergic reactions in many patients. Riggs’s technique paved the way for the development of synthetic human insulin, which was approved by the FDA in 1982 as a diabetes drug under the tradename Humulin.

In 1979, Riggs took on administrative duties at City of Hope, eventually becoming the longtime chairman of the biology division. He helped to develop a PhD program at the institution in the early ’90s and served as the dean until 1998, when he took on other leadership roles. He became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2006 and, the following year, decided to step away from administrative work to refocus on his research into DNA methylation and epigenetics.

Riggs amassed a considerable fortune from the royalties on his patents, though The New York Times reports that Riggs wasn’t flashy with money and stayed in the same home for more than 50 years. He was a big spender, however, when it came to City of Hope, to which he quietly and anonymously donated money for years. After his final nine-figure donation in January 2021, he revealed that his lifetime total contribution exceeded $310 million. To honor this, along with Riggs’s years of service as an administrator and researcher, the institution renamed its diabetes research center the Arthur Riggs Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute.

“I believe in the promise of our work at City of Hope so strongly that one day, probably sooner than most think, we’ll create a world without diabetes,” Riggs said in a press statement when the renaming was announced.

Although Riggs officially retired in October 2020, he continued his research and collaboration until his death. He is survived by Jane, their three children and three grandchildren, and his sister.