How the Retina Guides Dr. Joseph Martel

Dr. Joseph Martel is fascinated by the eye and retina. The Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh is always awed by the “beautiful view of the retina – through the ophthalmoscope and especially in surgery.”

No surprise then, that he specializes in vitreoretinal surgery and diseases. He is also Principal Investigator on three exciting clinical trials that stem from research Ophthalmology Chair Dr. Jose Sahel conducted over many years in Paris and Pittsburgh.

Dr. Martel’s curiosity about the world meant he naturally gravitated toward an interest in science. He went into medicine so he could use his scientific knowledge and skill to help people. He chose ophthalmology because he realized one can learn a great deal about systemic health from an examination of the eye.

“I was also fascinated by microsurgical intraocular surgery and an appreciation for the precision necessary to perform these procedures,” Dr. Martel says. Patient gratitude for helping or restoring lost vision also cannot be underestimated.

The retina’s importance in the visual pathway means that it is the most challenging surgery. Another challenge is the inadequate treatment for blinding diseases. This only serves as further motivation for Dr. Martel.

“I am most interested in the challenge of helping patients with diseases that may not have simple solutions,” he says.

Since he joined the Pitt faculty in 2013, Dr. Martel’s research interests include vision restoration therapies, gene therapies, retinal prosthetic devices, and robotic surgical tools for vitreoretinal surgery. His research is funded in part by support from The Eye & Ear Foundation and its generous donors.

He is Principal Investigator on the Pixum PRIMA clinical trial. It involves a wireless sub-macular bionic vision device for patients with end-stage atrophic dry macular degeneration. In January 2020, UPMC was the first in the U.S. to implant this device.

Dr. Martel is also Principal Investigator for the Gensight PIONEER clinical trial, which provides optogenetic gene therapy treatment for patients with end-stage retinitis pigmentosa.

The third and most recent clinical trial Dr. Martel is Principal Investigator for is SparingVision Phenorod2, a natural history study for patients with retinitis pigmentosa caused by specific gene mutations. The goal is to gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of retinitis pigmentosa and its evolution to better inform upcoming gene therapy treatment clinical trials. This will be done by using various functional and ocular imaging tests to assess changes in vision and onset of symptoms over a four-year period.

People with questions or interest in participating in these studies can contact Michelle Alabek, MS, CGC, at or 412-647-5756.