City of Hope has renamed its preeminent diabetes research center the Arthur Riggs Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute in honor of its longtime director and research pioneer Arthur Riggs, Ph.D., the Samuel Rahbar Chair in Diabetes & Drug Discovery. Riggs’ scientific achievements included developing the technology that led to the creation of the first synthetic human insulin — a breakthrough that enabled mass production of insulin for people with diabetes. That discovery, which made possible the launch of a $500 billion global biotech industry, was followed by numerous firsts in the field of biomedical science. Today, synthetic insulin is used by hundreds of millions of people.
Riggs also developed recombinant DNA technology capable of producing humanized monoclonal antibodies that are the foundation of modern treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, blindness and a host of other diseases. These therapies include trastuzumab (commercial name: Herceptin), rituximab (commercial name: Rituxan), pembrolizumab (commercial name: Keytruda) and many others that are some of the world’s most widely used cancer drugs.
A fan of science fiction since childhood, Riggs said, “I’m disappointed that I never quite made it as a space-traveling scientist. But in my field, I’ve been able to do things that are just as exciting. When I sit back and think about it, I just continue to be amazed at what the field has done in general and that I’ve been able to be part of it. It’s absolutely incredible.”
“Dr. Riggs has been essential to the institute’s growth and accomplishments over five decades as a researcher, discoverer, mentor and major donor," said Robert Stone, president and CEO of City of Hope and the Helen and Morgan Chu Chief Executive Officer Distinguished Chair. "His contributions to biomedical research have transformed the lives of countless people living with serious diseases, and his mark on City of Hope is an indelible one that will continue on in the institute that now bears his name.”
At City of Hope, in addition to dedicating himself to scientific pursuits, Riggs quietly contributed nearly all of the wealth from his discoveries to support leading-edge research toward the development of new treatments for the betterment of human health.
Over the last 30 years, Riggs donated more than $310 million to City of Hope. His generosity culminated in a gift of $100 million in January 2021 that will help fund the continuation of research that has been his passion for more than half a century.
Riggs had insisted that his gifts remain anonymous so that any attention would not detract from his work. He elected to make his philanthropy public in hopes of encouraging other donors to join City of Hope’s fight against diabetes and cancer, especially at a time when new therapeutic discoveries are needed more than ever.
“The money I have acquired has come largely from patents, and I have the general idea that money derived from science should go back to science,” Riggs said. “So in giving to City of Hope, I’m able to behave consistently with my philosophy.”
“I came to City of Hope because the environment here offers exactly that — hope for people with diabetes, cancer and many other serious diseases,” added Riggs, who had been at the institution for more than 50 years. “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. Yet, we will realize the full potential of this important work only through the generosity of many other donors who will choose to join us.”
In 2014, City of Hope established the Diabetes & Metabolism 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. “I’ve got to be in the best occupation in the world. It’s intellectually exciting. We’re trying to solve puzzles and cure disease. When you have the opportunity to do something important and you’re at the forefront of the field, what could be better?”
Indeed, the Arthur Riggs Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute is one of the world’s foremost scientific organizations dedicated to investigating the biology of diabetes and its treatment. It houses eight departments, including The Wanek Family Project for Type 1 Diabetes, and continues Riggs’ work under its newly appointed director, Debbie C. Thurmond, Ph.D., the Ruth B. & Robert K. Lanman Chair in Gene Regulation & Drug Discovery Research.
“It has been a humbling honor to assume responsibility for this institute that Dr. Riggs so lovingly and painstakingly built,” Thurmond said. “It’s entirely fitting that it should carry his name as we carry on the work he began for the benefit of people with diabetes. His philanthropy is an extension of the generosity of spirit he has shown to me and everyone else who has ever walked through these doors, and his impact will be with us for many years to come.”