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Morton, left, and von Geldern Photo: Matthew Avignone
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The Disease Solvers

Howard Morton and Tom von Geldern

If horror master David Cronenberg created a disease, it would be onchocerciasis. Commonly known as river blindness, it is caused by worms that enter the body through the bites of black flies. Once settled, they birth thousands of thread-like babies—every day. These weave throughout their host, producing unsightly skin nodules, horrific itching, and, when they reach the eyes, incurable blindness.

Of the 37 million people with river blindness (about 300,000 of whom have lost their sight), most live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—so it’s not something you need to fret about here in Chicago. Yet Howard Morton and Tom von Geldern, who both worked as chemists at the pharmaceutical company AbbVie, do worry about it and the more than 120 million people—some of the poorest in the world—at risk. “We’re always talking about neglected diseases,” says Morton, who lives in Gurnee. “But we’re really talking about neglected people.”

So the two men came out of retirement to craft a revolutionary treatment for the ­malady—and they are doing it without collecting a cent of salary. The new antibiotic at the heart of their breakthrough was developed from a drug used on cattle and sheep that von Geldern, who lives in far northwest suburban Solon Mills, and a team of scientists found within AbbVie’s arsenal. The previous compound did a great job of sterilizing the adult worms by killing a strain of bacteria inside them that they need to reproduce. But it worked well only when injected, which isn’t practical in regions that lack robust health care. Von Geldern spent years in the lab modifying a single molecule of the compound so that the new drug could be administered as a pill. Then Morton figured out how to produce the antibiotic on a large scale. The drug, which worked on mice, is to begin clinical trials on humans this winter. It also has the potential to treat elephantiasis, another devastating condition caused by parasitic worms.

But von Geldern and Morton aren’t done. They plan to continue volunteering to work on cures for the world’s worst diseases. Next up: a better treatment for tuberculosis.

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