Arthur Riggs, Ph.D., and His Search for a Diabetes Cure
March 17, 2017 | by Samantha Bonar
Now, thanks to a new $50 million funding program led by the Wanek family, he is only picking up the pace.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I continue to be amazed and excited about the progress that the entire field is making, and very pleased that we are right there at the forefront, particularly in the fields of cellular therapy and immunotherapy.”
A Legacy of Breakthroughs
Riggs is no newcomer to this task — he has been working on better treatments for diabetes since joining City of Hope nearly 50 years ago in 1969.
Although not as well known as its cancer program, “City of Hope has had a very significant research program in diabetes since 1970,” Riggs said.
City of Hope scientists have been responsible for several other leaps forward in diabetes treatment, including development of the HA1C blood sugar test and pancreatic islet (insulin-making clusters of beta cells) transplantation.
In 2014, City of Hope established the Diabetes & Metabolic Research Institute, integrating basic, translational and clinical research with innovative care and comprehensive education.
The work done there has resulted in exciting developments in cell transplantation, gene regulation and immune tolerance, and in gaining systemic understanding of diabetes as a complex, multifaceted disease.
“We’ve become one of the best diabetes research institutes in the world,” Riggs said.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which immune cells that normally protect people from infections and cancer mistakenly attack the insulin-producing beta cells found in the pancreas, leaving the patient dependent on insulin injections.
The new infusion of funds “will accelerate our progress [against the disease], especially in clinical trials,” Riggs said. “It will accelerate the transfer to patient care.”
Current trials involve manipulating the immune system via a vaccine and an improved method of bone marrow stem cell transplantation to replace the diabetic patient’s compromised immune system with a healthy one. Both of these techniques “have the promise of stopping [type 1] diabetes even once it has started. Preclinical work will be started right away. We’ll find out right away whether or not they’ll work,” Riggs said.
Other experiments involve improving islet transplantation technique and using nanoparticles that are derived from stem cells to improve the function and survival of transplanted islet cells. Still other trials will be focused on preventing the complications of diabetes.
Ironically, “I did not intend to study diabetes,” Riggs admitted. “The early work was an accident. Really we were trying to make genes. We asked ourselves, ‘What useful gene can we make?’ The gene that we decided to make that we thought would be useful was human insulin.”
However, “Around 2000, I did take it upon myself as a goal to cure diabetes within my lifetime. I’m comfortable with the goal of curing [type 1] diabetes within the next six years,” Riggs said. “I’m very excited about the way things have developed.”
In more good news, Riggs points out that “there is a lot of overlap between type 1 and type 2 diabetes” — the latter by far the more common manifestation — “and all of the research about beta cells that we’re doing applies to both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.”
However, even though Riggs sees a cure within sight, “That will just be the beginning. It will take longer for it to go into common practice. But I’m confident we will learn how to stop diabetes in its tracks within six years.
“We are already moving forward. We’re off with a running start,” he said.