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THOMAS FARRAGHER

He’s working for a company whose creations could cure him

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Don Burl (left) and John Notte work at Carl Zeiss Microscopy, which is developing a microscope that is key to studying Alport syndrome.

By Globe Columnist 

PEABODY — They’ve worked together for 10 years now, two guys at an antiseptic office park not far from the traffic on Route 128, perfecting a $2 million microscope: a complex gadget of hoses and nozzles that resembles one of those crude robots from a bad 1960s science fiction film.

John Notte and Don Burl are not strangers, but they’re hardly best friends, either. They sit about 50 feet apart and sometimes can go a week without saying hello.

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Then, the other day, each of them approached the company bulletin board with different postings that instantly made things dramatically less sterile at their offices at One Corporation Way.

Here’s what happened:

Notte is the chief scientist for business development for Carl Zeiss Microscopy, a German manufacturer of optical systems and medical devices.

Burl is a buyer and planner for the firm, the guy who makes the trains run on time, ensuring that all of the 5,000 parts that go into those complex microscopes arrive on schedule and in the proper sequence.

Notte posted a press release that trumpeted how their company’s microscope is helping to reveal extremely small details of the kidneys of mice with Alport syndrome, an important step toward enabling scientists to better understand the genetic disorder that affects 1 in 50,000 children.

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“I posted it down by the entrance to let all the employees know that we’re getting a little bit famous — bit by bit,’’ Notte said.

Burl posted something just next to it, an announcement that was less dense and easier to comprehend.

“As many of you know, I am a three-time kidney transplant recipient and am again currently on the list to receive my fourth kidney,’’ his posting began.

The 2017 Boston Kidney Walk is coming up in mid-October. Burl, who has had impaired hearing since childhood, wondered whether his co-workers would like to contribute to the cause.

Notte, the scientist, wondered something else.

“So when I saw the kidney fund-raiser and this kidney paper, I said, ‘That’s interesting.’ And then I read a little bit more about Alport syndrome,’’ Notte recalled. “It said it’s commonly associated with hearing loss. And I thought: It’s starting to seem like maybe that’s a match. It’s an extremely rare disease. I wondered: Is there any reason I can’t ask Don?’’

No, there wasn’t.

And that’s when the precise research at the Zeiss Group suddenly got more personal.

Don Burl, 44, was born in Woburn, the middle child of a homemaker mom and warehouse manager dad. His hearing problems began as a young boy when trips to Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary were common.

By the time he was in high school, there was blood in his urine, a near-universal symptom of Alport syndrome.

“I didn’t understand any of it,’’ he said. “But I had to learn pretty quickly, though. I went from being in high school to having Alport’s to being on dialysis within two months.’’

At age 17, like most 17-year-olds, he thought himself invincible.

“Nothing bothered me,’’ he said. “I wasn’t scared. But it freaked me out when I started dialysis.’’

What followed was a series of kidney transplants, including one from a cadaver and one from his brother. He is due for a fourth transplant soon.

In the meantime, Don Burl lived his life. He went to work. He got married. He and his wife have two children. Their daughter, Paige, is 17. Their son, Zack, just turned 21.

A decade ago, he found a job he loved at Zeiss. It’s a challenging position. And he’s good at it. What he didn’t know is that the parts he was ordering for those impossibly complex microscopes could one day help cure a disease that he mostly keeps to himself.

“You’re not outspoken about it,’’ Notte, the scientist, said to him as we sat in a first-floor conference room here last week. “You don’t make a big deal about it. You just do your job like everyone else does. I knew you had hearing aids because when I come to your office, you say: Get my attention first before you start talking, John.’’

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Don Burl and John Notte posted bulletin-board notes that led them to a key revelation.

Burl is a reserved guy. But the news of what is happening at his workplace was too exciting not to share. He spread word to members of the team who will walk with him later this month to raise funds for the National Kidney Foundation. “They all thought it was unbelievable,’’ he said.

“It’s a proud moment,’’ he told me. “You’re working on something that someday in the future could eliminate the disease that I have. It’s something I’m very proud of.’’

Burl’s 23-year-old nephew, Christopher, who also has the disease, had his first transplant in February.

“My brother is truly a hero in my eyes,’’ said Caryn Cassidy, Burl’s older sister and the mother of Christopher. “He focuses on the positives in his life. He still goes to work every day and raises his family and I just think that’s amazing. It’s amazing that he’s working for a company that’s making strides to fight this, because it’s a forgotten disease. It’s so rare.’’

Notte said the powerful microscope developed at Zeiss may well help scientists unlock the hidden mechanisms of several kidney diseases.

That microscope is capable of generating images in nanometer-length scale. How small is that? If all the words in this article were as small as a nanometer, they all would fit more than comfortably into the period that ends this sentence.

The scientist recalled the words of an early founder of a company that was later acquired by Zeiss, a now-retired man named Billy Ward who encouraged his scientists to seize their role in an extraordinary endeavor.

“He told us that someday someone’s going to do something with this microscope and it’s going to save some lives,’’ Notte said. “It’s going to mean some disease gets cured a little earlier. Someone’s going to cure some kind of cancer. And that was always his wish or his motivation for the rest of the company. He said, ‘What you’re doing is important. You may not understand that now.’

“It may have been just a motivational speech at the time. But it worked. And now, it turns out to be true.’’

It’s the kind of news that would electrify any scientist, especially those at work on those gangly stainless-steel million-dollar microscopes that could help save the life of the guy in the cubicle next door.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.