Beloved, even revered at City of Hope for over four decades, Riggs, the Samuel Rahbar Chair in Diabetes & Drug Discovery and director of the Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute at City of Hope, has made history while also making a profound impact on hundreds of scientists and clinicians.
“It is just awesome to work with the guy who [helped develop] synthetic insulin,” gushed Jeannette Hacker-Stratton, a type 1 diabetic and administrative program manager for the Islet Cell Transplantation Program. It was Riggs’s research in 1979 that paved the way for the bacterial production of synthetic human insulin, leading to the formation of Genentech and kickstarting the biotech industry.
Sampath Rangasamy, Ph.D., a researcher at City of Hope affiliate TGen, spent his early years in rural India struggling to control his own type 1 diabetes with animal-based insulin. Once he moved to a larger city and could access the fruits of Riggs’ labor, Rangasamy’s life changed dramatically. Years later, when he met Riggs for the first time, the encounter was … interesting.
“TGen and City of Hope had this gathering,” he recalled, “and I got super excited to see [Riggs] there, and a little star-stuck about approaching him to introduce myself.
“But after I gave my presentation, it was Riggs who came over to me!” he exclaimed. “He said to me, ‘Excellent job!’
“Now we talk frequently. He’s a great person.”
Fellow researchers at City of Hope tell of similar experiences. Riggs interacts with many of them frequently, not as some Olympian-on-high making pronouncements, but rather as mentor, colleague and friend, collaborating and suggesting.
“My philosophy for scientific leadership is to make suggestions, almost never orders,” Riggs explained. “This is what my mentors did.”
His role model at Caltech, Herschel K. Mitchell, Ph.D., “only made suggestions. It was OK for me to question his suggestions, and he encouraged me to make my own decisions. I was expected to think independently.”
He found the same encouragement at the Salk Institute, where Melvin Cohn, Ph.D., guided him. Later, at City of Hope, it was biologist Susumu Ohno, Ph.D., who created an environment where “ideas and theoretical discussions again were an important part of our research effort at that time,” said Riggs, “and this continues to this day.”
Indeed it was an idea — and a suggestion from Riggs — that fundamentally refocused the work of one of City of Hope’s prominent research teams.
“Our lab direction changed five years ago,” recalled researcher Dustin Schones, Ph.D. His team studies how obesity may bring about genetic changes that could lead to diabetes. A graduate student believed she’d detected changes in so-called “transposable elements” — DNA sequences that change location.
“We’d largely ignored TEs,” said Schones. “But Dr. Riggs suggested to the student that she look further.” She did, and now Schones’s lab leads the way in this emerging area, examining the consequences of TE dysregulation.
Schones says this is exactly what he was looking for when he joined City of Hope following his postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health.
“Art Riggs is one of the reasons we moved to City of Hope. He’s a strong draw.”
A strong draw who doesn’t come on strong. Not one to pull rank or stand on ceremony, Riggs makes a point of being accessible, just as his mentors did for him.
“I would like to think I am approachable,” he said. “My office door is open … and I do try to be as nice as I can to everybody.”
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