Alumnus works to understand the underlying cause of severe sight loss

Justin Hoke ’09 of London, Great Britain, dedicates his time working in the field of genetics. Since 2016, Hoke has worked as a senior research technician of gene and cell therapies at University College of London (UCL) in the Institute of Ophthalmology.

The Gene and Cell Therapy Group at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, where Hoke conducts research, focuses primarily on “increasing (the) understanding of the underlying mechanisms of diseases that cause severe sight loss.” Ophthalmology is defined as the branch of medicine concerned with the study and treatment of disorders and diseases of the eye.

The Gene and Cell Therapy Group also states that, “in collaboration with our various research partners both in the UK and around the world, our research aims to bring more gene and stem cell based therapies to the clinic within the coming years to treat patients with a range of sight loss conditions.”

The group develops vector technology and gene supplementations for retinal degeneration, retinal cell and stem cell transplantation techniques, and retinal phenotyping for better physical characterization changes to the retina associated with different inherited conditions.

Hoke is primarily a research technician, and as such, his workday is packed with diverse activities. Hoke conducts vivo experiments, or the frequent clinical practice of experimentation done using a whole, living organism in place of a partial or dead organism. He also performs electroretinogram tests, which search for abnormal retinal functions in regards to light-sensitive cells of the eyes of patients. Other aspects of Hoke’s work includes collecting tissue, processing samples, training new staff members on the Gene and Cell Therapy Group, and conducting gene therapy treatments delivered via injection.

“In two short years, I’ve already been part of incredible, ground breaking research. We’ve developed new therapies/methods that are now moving forward to the final pre-clinical steps and then onto clinical,” says Hoke. “It’s very satisfying to see such progress and know that people will be influenced in a positive way.”

With a pharmaceutical background and passion for science, Hoke’s work greatly contributes to the robust research conducted throughout the past 15 years by the Gene and Cell Therapy Group. In regards to struggles that the field of ophthalmology faces, Hoke says “I think a lot of attention is given to cancer and Alzheimer’s research, as it should, but there are advances being made in many other fields that are often not widely discussed in society.”

“Our research is having a very real impact and improving (the) quality of life for our patients. I also think if we can find a way to better share the successes of science in general, we could solve many of the challenges researchers around the world are now facing,” notes Hoke.

Hoke majored in history and biology at Ripon College. He now works alongside 45 other scientists. While post doctorates and researchers focus on certain diseases, all members collaborate and share ideas. At weekly meetings, one scientist presents research and others provide constructive criticism and ideas to help move the project along. When experiments must be conducted, everyone at the Institute works together.

“It’s a very interesting and rewarding job,” says Hoke. “Knowing that the work I do can help someone have a better quality of life despite their illness is simply incredible.”

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Portrait of Justin Hoke