Landmark human insulin study marks 40-year anniversary

January 29, 2019 | by Michael Easterling

breakthroughs - arthur riggs legacy Keiichi Itakura, Ph.D., left, and Arthur Riggs, Ph.D., around the time of their groundbreaking discovery.
In January 1979, the National Academy of Sciences published a paper about an innovative discovery at City of Hope that would forever change how diabetes is treated. Arthur Riggs, Ph.D., and Keiichi Itakura, Ph.D., revolutionized diabetes treatment when they used a synthetic DNA chemistry and recombinant DNA technology to make a novel gene, one that coded for human insulin. It would be the first gene deliberately designed to make a product specifically to benefit human health.
 
"Up to that point, human insulin was not available. Insulin mainly came from cows,” explained Riggs of the team’s “eureka” moment. “We didn’t copy the natural gene. We made our own.”
 
Building on work from MIT scientist Gobind Khorana, Itakura developed a technique that reduced the time needed for successful synthesis from years to weeks. Riggs and Itakura, together with their colleague Herbert Boyer at UC San Francisco, demonstrated that when introduced into bacteria, their human-designed gene functioned well, causing the bacteria to make human insulin.
 
Not only did we make that gene, we designed it to command bacteria to make insulin,” Riggs said.
 
The groundbreaking discovery — and invention — by Riggs, Itakura and their colleagues provided a new source of insulin that would become the first biologic ever approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Their landmark research was published in the January 1979 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The work was funded by then-startup biotech company Genentech, which improved yields and then transferred the technology to Eli Lilly to scale up production. By 1982, synthetic insulin was available commercially. It is now the standard of care for diabetes, helping millions of people worldwide each year.
 
Both Riggs and Itakura continue their legendary careers at City of Hope. Itakura has been here since 1975, becoming a professor in 1980 and forming the Department of Molecular Genetics (now called the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology) in 1982. His work in recombinant DNA technology has significantly impacted the fields of molecular biology and biochemistry on a global scale.
 
Specializing in epigenetics and gene regulation, Riggs’s cancer research has also been groundbreaking, with novel treatments produced for breast, colon and blood cancers. He currently holds the Samuel Rahbar Chair in Diabetes & Drug Discovery, and is director of the Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute at City of Hope. He is founding dean of the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences, and director emeritus of Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. In addition to the 40thanniversary of the published research, Riggs also marks his 50th year here at City of Hope, having come here in 1969.
 
Last year, Riggs received the Chancellor’s Award Medallion from his alma mater, UC Riverside, for his “extraordinary achievements.” He calls his 50 years here “the best job in the world.”
 
 You can read the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences paper on the discovery here.
 
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