Opportunities for the world

Dr. Dale Kempf ’75 might have some great advice for the student still deciding on a major, and it might have something to do with taking the opportunities that are presented.

He should know, as it was a series of well-timed opportunities that led him from the deciding student at Hesston College to researching and developing treatments for HIV/AIDS in a 26-year career at Abbott Laboratories.

Dale was a farm boy from Shickley, Neb., and the fourth in a family of six to attend Hesston College. He arrived as a freshman in fall 1973 with plans to study music and Bible, but, like many college students, he changed his mind. Partway through his first semester Dale decided to study science.

“I was always interested in science and being a scientist even before I knew what they did,” he said. Fortunately, he took a general chemistry class where he discovered a sense of belonging.

Chemistry professor Jim Yoder remembers Dale well.

“He always did very good work,” says Yoder. “He was an exemplary student, pleasant and unassuming. Yet he seemed to struggle with a clear direction for his education, as he was a very accomplished musician as well.”

As his two years at Hesston came to a close, Dale realized he wasn’t ready to leave. Yoder recognized Dale’s hesitancy and created a job for him as an intern and lab assistant in the science department. When that year finished, Dale found himself still grappling with the next step. One day Yoder remarked, “Goshen College has a good chemistry program.”

Dale had two options: ignore Yoder’s statement and continue to ponder what happens next, or explore the recommendation. He chose the latter and graduated with a B.A. in chemistry from Goshen College in 1978. He earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Illinois in Champaign, then spent two years doing post-doctoral research in the chemistry department at Columbia University in New York City.

In late summer 1984 another opportunity presented itself – a job with Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago, Ill. Abbott is a global health-care company responsible for developing new medicines and medical technologies. Dale accepted the position and began his career as a research chemist for Abbott’s Pharmaceutical Products Division developing renin inhibitors – treatments for hypertension.

Three years later he heard the words that would lead to the defining work of his career as a scientist.

“I was in the lab and my former supervisor walked in and said, ‘Dale, there’s a new paper out that speculates that the AIDS virus has a protease.'”

To those not gifted with the understanding of science, that statement would mean very little, but to Dale it meant the opportunity of a lifetime.

“A protease is a common type of enzyme, which accelerates processes in the body,” explains Dale. “I was already working on compounds that could inhibit proteases. If HIV had such a protease, the implication was that we might be able to stop the virus in its tracks.”

AIDS was still a mystery disease in 1987 and essentially 100 percent lethal. The world was only just beginning to understand the magnitude and complexity of the problem. A great scientific challenge lay before Dale and his colleagues. Success would create a huge benefit worldwide.

After several years and hundreds of compounds, Dale and his team saw the release of Norvir in 1996, Abbott’s first HIV protease inhibitor, and one of the first in the world to be approved by the FDA. The development of Norvir eventually led to Abbott’s advanced-generation protease inhibitor, Kaletra, in 2000. HIV is always treated with a combination of drugs to prevent the virus from finding ways around the drugs and becoming resistant. Today, Norvir and Kaletra are used alongside other drugs to provide hope to HIV patients worldwide.

Successes often lead to advancement, which is true for Dale. It has been several years since Dale found himself creating in the lab. Now he keeps busy supervising new research. He currently directs antiviral research at Abbott and works to develop new therapies for the Hepatitis C virus. He is also part of Abbott’s Discovery Medicinal Chemistry Leadership Team, a group of highly experienced medicinal chemists who evaluate internal projects across drug discovery divisions. He serves as scientific head of Abbott’s Executive Committee for Neglected Diseases as well, which provides leadership in identifying ways Abbott can assist in underserved disease areas.

To date, Dale has more than 130 scientific publications and 60 U.S. patents. He has also received numerous awards for his work in the development of antiretroviral drugs, including the National Inventor of the Year in 1997 and Heroes of Chemistry in 2003. These awards honor the scientific expertise needed to create a drug with global impact, but Dale knows it takes more than just expertise.

The opportunities for growth and discovery he experienced while at Hesston College were the building blocks he needed to make his mark on the world.

“Hesston College allowed me to explore different things,” he said. “The campus community was and is an environment that is very supportive. When I started at Hesston I didn’t necessarily have the confidence that I had when I left. Hesston planted the seed for a passion for science and making a difference in the world. They are values I carry with me and that people recognize in me today.”

Dale and his wife Kay live in a suburb of Chicago. They have two young-adult sons, David and Scott.