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A Journey of Sight: The Long Road Toward Curing River Blindness

From Chicago to sub-Saharan Africa, a team of scientists paired up with a nonprofit research organization to help find a treatment for a disease affecting millions.

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It’s not often that a powerhouse biopharmaceutical company and a nonprofit drug and research organization join forces to help eliminate an infectious disease — ultimately altering the epidemiology of an entire region. But for AbbVie and the Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative (DNDi), this very partnership is already in full swing as they work in tandem on a potential life-saving treatment for onchocerciasis, or river blindness, a debilitating disease affecting approximately 15.5 million people mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.

This documentary, produced by Epic Stories, reveals how AbbVie’s partnership with DNDi has challenged the way that corporations traditionally engage with philanthropic partners. It’s about solving a problem by dedicating time, energy, information, education, and resources, ultimately forming a regenerative system of disruptive innovation — a hands-on approach that makes AbbVie unique in the biopharmaceutical world.

Meet retired chemist and distinguished research fellow, Dale Kempf, an AbbVie institution unto himself, who has spent his 35 year-career developing one blockbuster treatment after another. Perhaps no development is closer to his heart, however, than the potential medication for river blindness, which is currently in a phase two clinical trial in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Neglected diseases are often diseases suffered by neglected people,” Kempf says — so certain diseases often aren’t given the same attention by the global medical community as other health risks, leaving millions of the world’s most vulnerable in a cycle of illness and poverty. This is something that AbbVie seeks to change with the ongoing commitment of its neglected diseases program, as well as with their collaboration with organizations like DNDi.

A great connector of people, Kempf has used the last decade of his time at AbbVie to assemble over 400 scientists at their headquarters in Chicago, all working pro-bono on developing this most recent river blindness treatment; a testament to how AbbVie fosters a specific kind of scientific brilliance in the service of a true humanitarian effort. But others also play their part to get this treatment to patients. Take Dr. Niki Alami, whose role at AbbVie centers on marshaling the drug from clinical trials forward —and she does so with a wealth of partners around the globe. “We think of [river blindness] as a distant problem, but it could have been any of us,” she shares.

Other key characters? Trudi Veldman, who has taken the baton from Kempf as current head of AbbVie’s neglected diseases program after he retired in 2019, works tirelessly to maintain urgency and excitement around a project that’s been years in the making. And of course, there are DNDi’s neglected disease experts, Sabine Specht and Dr. Wilfried Mutombo Kalonji, who have kept the trial running in the Congo in spite of an ebola outbreak, a volcano eruption, and constant political unrest.

At its core, their work extends far beyond one contained project, and has far-reaching effects: AbbVie’s development of an investigational drug with potential life-changing implications is not only helping to address river blindness — bringing hope to hundreds of thousands in central Africa — it’s revealing how much of the pharmaceutical industry is driven by compassion, humanity and a profound purpose to help people. “With the neglected diseases program, people saw the opportunity to have an extra impact,” Kempf says. “I think that speaks to us as human beings and it speaks to us as scientists.”