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[Doctors with Patents] Renowned eye doctor stresses need for basic researchJoo Choun-ki works to develop medical devices independently to treat patients
  • By Marian Chu
  • Published 2018.04.11 11:46
  • Updated 2018.04.11 11:46
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Korean hospitals have become more than just places for treatment but as a place of research and scientific development, leading to higher cooperation between firms and medical institutions. Against this backdrop, Korea Biomedical Review is interviewing doctors renowned for pushing forward innovation in the healthcare sector particularly in regards to obtaining patents. – Ed.

Dr. Joo Choun-ki loves taking calculated risks.

Professor Joo Choun-ki emphasizes the importance for clinical doctors to pursue research activities at the same time, during a recent interview with Korea Biomedical Review.

A doctor, researcher, and academic rolled into one in the field of ophthalmology, Joo enjoys high reputation both here and abroad.

He is a professor at the Catholic College of Medicine, served as the chairman and director of the Department of Ophthalmology at St. Mary’s Hospital, and the dean of the Catholic University of Korea’s Medical School.

His works with the late Stephen Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan on promoting and encouraging eye donations in Korea have been reported extensively in the media. Joo captured the public’s attention by transplanting the deceased spiritual leader’s corneas into two recipients after his passing.

Joo’s acts of altruism have been primarily documented with notable works including treating the sick in developing countries, such as Kenya. But the professor gives back to the scientific community through his pursuit of knowledge. Joo has published numerous research papers and won patents, enhancing the competitiveness of Korea’s medical sector on a global stage.

Researcher and practicing clinician rolled into one

Joo, a practicing Catholic, prolific researcher, and skilled clinician, has performed more than 30,000 cases of cataract operation and open ring guided capsulorhexis (ORGC), throughout his career. Along with his clinical work, Joo is famous for doing basic and translational research that has resulted in him obtaining several patents for medical devices and inducing stem cell differentiation for corneal regeneration.

Dr. Joo pursues research and obtains patents because he understands what doctors need in the field, he said in an interview with Korea Biomedical Review. But what sets him apart from most others is his ability to develop solutions for the problems physicians face.

His solution-oriented approach stems from his emphasis on constant, rational thinking. “The heart has a beat, and the lung has respiration. They can both operate at the same time. We can also do many things at once but to do them well, we should think ahead. I recommend thinking even while sleeping,” he said.

It is primarily this line of thought that helped Joo become the ultimate multitasker and renowned physician and researcher.

A mentor that taught him the importance of research

Joo first entered the Catholic University of Korea, College of Medicine in 1981 and received his training there from 1985 to 1988. He decided to specialize in ophthalmology and worked at Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, located in Bupyeong-gu, Incheon.

He later attended Washington University in St. Louis, one of the top medical institutions in the U.S. but little recognized in Korea. Joo’s sister and a brother-in-law, both doctors, were living there.

And it was at Wash U that Joo studied under Jay S. Pepose, a virologist whom the professor regards as a mentor, friend, and role model. Pepose, who was more or less the same age as Joo, had taught him not just corneal transplantations but the importance of research.

“At the time, it was scarce for clinicians to do research in Korea. In the 1980s, Korean clinicians only did clinical work,” he said. “After I took Pepose’s lab, I found out that it was possible to do both clinical work and research, and that became my dream.”

After he returned to Korea, Joo fulfilled his dream. He became one of the few doctors in Korea that did both clinical work and research, applying for funds from government institutions such as the National Research Foundation of Korea and the Ministry of Science and ICT, which were - at the time - feats in themselves considering clinical eye doctors had rarely done so before.

And his work served as a stimulus for other doctors. Joo completed his research fellowship in visual science and specialized in ophthalmology, propelling research forward until he became a professor, and finally, the dean of the Catholic University Medical School in 1997 after the university president, Father Park Young-shik, reviewed his work and wanted Joo to “stimulate other researchers.”

Basic and translational research key for real-life treatment

Joo now serves as the director of the Research Institute of the Visual Field where he continues both clinical work and research, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. He noted that he had been focusing more on translational research as of late, primarily because he wishes to see medical devices he developed used in real life.

“Every surgeon wants to perform a perfect surgery. To do a perfect surgery, though, we need medical equipment. I have a lot of clinical experience, so I know what kind of medical devices are needed by physicians,” he said.

Joo focused primarily on creating a device for ocular surgery training, a surgical instrument for assisting in distinguishing anterior capsule during cataract surgery, and an anterior capsulotomy guide device for cataract surgery, for which he obtained patents from the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office.

The physician also pursued stem cell therapy research, noting that research in this field originated from ophthalmology. He stressed the importance of pushing forward more research in the sector to make up for a severe lack of donated corneas in a country where eye transplants account for only around 1,000 cases out of the total 45,000 operations performed each year.

Joo’s most recently approved patent developed a method that induces differentiation of a stem cell necessary for cornea regeneration and culturing a stem cell in a medium, including a protein called BMP-4. The novel invention presents a way of turning a stem cell into a corneal limbal stem cell that is necessary to repair damaged corneas.

“We wanted to increase the number of corneas so we found out which combination of cross factors can increase the number of corneal stem cells,” he said.

Joo is also working with the private sector through partnerships with domestic companies such as Kukje Pharm to develop a new agent for dry eye as well as conducting clinical trials with companies such a Samjin Pharm, Huons, and Hanlim Pharmaceuticals, acting as a bridge between hospitals and the industry.

While addressing up-and-coming doctors, Joo recalled his own experience as a budding physician. “When I started to do basic research, my seniors, colleagues, juniors told me that I couldn’t do both research and clinical work. But I didn’t believe them,” he said.

“Much of my ideas for my clinical work come from basic research. Although the younger generation doesn’t want to do it, I always emphasize that they should do basic research to get more ideas,” Joo went on to say.


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