by Mark Wheeler
Arthur Riggs, Ph.D., director of the Beckman Research Institute at City of Hope and a professor of biology, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
Riggs was elected in large part for his seminal work in the field of epigenetics, a branch of genetics that seeks to understand the biological processes that underlie inherited genetic characteristics that do not result from changes or mutations in the primary chemical base sequence of DNA.
Membership in the NAS is considered one of the most important honors that a scientist can achieve. In addition to the 2,013 active members of the academy following the April election, 371 foreign associates also are listed in the organization’s roster as nonvoting members.
The NAS is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the advancement of science and its use for the general welfare. It was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation signed by Abraham Lincoln that calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.
“Dr. Riggs’ body of work has been nothing short of visionary,” said Theodore G. Krontiris, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice president for Medical & Scientific Affairs at City of Hope. “We are all extremely proud of his election to the NAS. It’s a welcome accolade and very well deserved.”
Genes carry the blueprints to make proteins in a cell. As the units of DNA that define the proteins needed for life, genes have long been center-stage in biology. Yet for years, researchers could not explain why gene expression would often go awry. Why, for example, would tumor suppressor genes in an individual become inactivated without any mutations, increasing the chance for cancer?
In 1975, Riggs published a landmark theoretical paper in the journal Cytogenetics and Cell Genetics that correctly postulated the first known epigenetic mechanism, essentially founding a new branch of genetics. He was the first to identify DNA methylation as the mechanism of epigenetic regulation and inheritance. Methylation is the process by which certain gene bases exchange chemicals with another compound. The chemical exchange acts as a kind of key that “locks” targeted genes so they will not be able to begin the production of proteins. Riggs was the first to propose that methylation influenced DNA-protein interactions and was essential to an organism’s development. The Institute for Scientific Information declared Riggs’ paper a “Citation Classic” owing to the number of times other scientists referred to it in subsequent papers.
Riggs, along with City of Hope’s Keiichi Itakura, Ph.D., and UC San Francisco’s Herbert Boyer, Ph.D., also helped launch the genetic engineering revolution and the biotechnology industry. Their work led to recombinant DNA technology that was used by Genentech to produce the first biotechnology product approved by the Food and Drug Administration, a type of synthetic insulin called Humulin that is now used by millions of people with diabetes worldwide. Through his work with the production and engineering of monoclonal antibodies, Riggs has contributed to the development of effective cancer therapies, including Herceptin (breast cancer), Avastin (colon cancer) and Rituxan (lymphoma), and medicines targeting other diseases.
“Art Riggs is one of the country’s outstanding molecular biologists,” said Eugene Roberts, Ph.D., director emeritus, neurobiochemistry, at City of Hope, and a fellow NAS member. “He has made major contributions to our understanding of how DNA works, and used that knowledge to achieve significant practical applications that have proven to be of great value to civilization.”