Named one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” in health care, Eleni Antoniadou is leading the chase to reach one of the holy grails of biotechnology: creating organs in the laboratory that could be transplanted into sick patients who need them.
And that’s just one of the ambitious goals the young scientist has set for herself in the next ten years — which includes revolutionizing health care through the widespread adoption of regenerative medicine, bio-nanotechnology and the use of stem cells.
For the short term, though, she’s focused on finishing her PhD, and helping NASA prepare for a mission to Mars — which is only appropriate for someone whose interest in science and space began in childhood.
“My family and friends still remember me begging my parents to buy me freeze-dried astronaut food, wearing t-shirts with the NASA logo and reading space science books in primary school.”
“But it wasn’t until high school that I began to get actively involved in aerospace clubs and taking piloting classes,” says Antoniadou. “My first astronomy class, at the age of 15, was fuel for the fire that has driven me through my life to become a scientist, and motivated me to chase my dream to become an astronaut, and leave the confines of our beautiful planet to set foot on another celestial body.”
“If you don’t chase your dreams, you will never get a hold of them,”
says the now 28-year-old Antoniadou, whose main focus today is as the co-founder and chief of scientific research of the start-up Transplants without Donors, which aims to jumpstart the use of lab-generated organs in clinical transplants.
“A few years ago, when I first talked about creating artificial tissue and neurons, people were shocked at the suggestion, believing it to be the stuff of science fiction,” says Antoniadou.
People started paying attention when her University College London project to develop a tissue engineered trachea — and a business plan for the experimental product to become a clinical product — was awarded the top prize at UCL’s Translation to Clinic and to Commercialization of Nanotechnology Products Competition.
Shortly afterwards, the product of her research was implanted into a 36-year old patient, Andemariam Teklesenbet, who suffered from late stage tracheal cancer — in the first successful artificial organ transplant in the history of medicine.
In the wake of this historic test case came a barrage of job and research proposals to the young Greek scientist, who decided to move to the U.S., where she is currently working on her PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after receiving no less than nine scholarships to do so.
“I am the only woman in my department and the only European as well,” says Antoniadou, who earned her bachelor’s in Computer Science and Biomedical Applications from the University of Thessaly in Lamia. After earning her master’s degree in nanotechnology and regenerative medicine at UCL, she completed another master’s degree in bioengineering and tissue engineering at Illinois, before going on for a PhD in regenerative medicine and stem cell research.
“The competition is intense, and I must admit that it took a bit of extra effort to be accepted as a Greek.”
In the course of her graduate work in regenerative medicine, Antoniadou was selected from among 1,200 candidates to attend the NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration — which led to a job at the Center for Nanotechnology and Mars Exploration at Silicon Valley, where she remains a visiting researcher.
“We study the changes in the nervous systems of astronauts, whose sense of orientation and balance is affected by the change in atmospheric pressure,” Antoniadou tells Kathimerini. “We have also discovered that we can grow tissue faster in space thanks to the lack of atmospheric pressure, something that could really revolutionize the field.”
Though some of her work may be about Mars, Antoniadou’s focus remains firmly on helping ease human pain, which is also the main objective of Transplants without Donors.
“In the company, which has branches in Britain and the United States, we have engineers and scientists, and we have already succeeded in growing arteries, skin, nerves, tracheas, ears and noses,” says Antoniadou. “Our work is aimed at cancer patients or people who have been in accidents.”
“Every day,” says Antoniadou, “hundreds of people die globally while waiting for an organ transplant and every 10 minutes a new patient is added to the waiting list.”
As Antoniadou sees it, the emerging field of regenerative medicine can revolutionize the current practices in transplantations, provide alternative treatments for heart valve disease and neurodegenerative disorders, become a viable solution to the organ donor shortage problem, completely restore damaged muscles, tendons, skin and other tissues and most importantly give an end to the illicit organ trading that is rising in third world countries by annihilating the need for real organs.”
With her time divided between launching her start-up, completing her PhD in Illinois, her work with NASA in Silicon Valley, her volunteer work on humanitarian aid missions in Latin America — and her service as president of the European Health Parliament and the chair of the Preventive Medicine and Self Care Committee — Antoniadou admits that all the work means that she has little private life to speak of, yet she is determined to pursue her vision.
“I have seen children in Peru who were kidnapped for their skin,” says Antoniadou. “Such things make me dig in my heels even more to continue my research at any cost.”
ELENI ANTONIADOU, IN HER OWN WORDS
ON BIG IDEAS
“Socrates and Kant,” Antoniadou writes in the Huffington Post, “urged us to see the connections between big ideas and big achievements, and inspired generations to become more imaginative and daring while respecting the greater diversity of individuals. The biggest challenge for all of us today is to identify exactly who we are and what we stand for and become our own filter inclined to disenchant inequalities.”
ON TAKING BABY STEPS
“I take baby steps in the world of science, acknowledging that failure is part of the process. I find that in research the tendency to see the emptiness of every glass is pervasive due to the complexity of its nature, so I’m trying to be focused on my goals and hopeful that I will be able to make fruitful contributions.”
ON BEING PART OF ‘THE EMPOWERMENT CIRCUIT’
“Whether you have faced immense struggles due to the perpetuation of inequalities or have been harder to yourself than circumstances warrant, you can be part of the empowerment circuit that will reboot the social mentality by being tenacious and trustworthy, having a strong personal identity with lots of grace and humility, acting with integrity and killing it with kindness.”
“We are the ones we were waiting for.”
ON HER GOALS FOR THE NEXT TEN YEARS
“In the next 10 years, I hope to contribute to the development of artificial organs as an alternative therapy for transplants. At the same time, I hope to contribute to the sensitizing of society to the acceptance of innovative technologies in clinical practice.”
“I would be happy if, through technological innovations, we could ensure access to pharmaceutical and medical care and knowledge to all people around the Earth.”
ON BEING CHALLENGED
“My experiences on humanitarian missions in developing countries, where I met victims of the organ black market in their ruthless battle for survival, have made me completely re-evaluate what a challenge is, on a personal level.”
ON HER HOPES FOR THE FUTURE
“By the year 2025… we will have managed to fix genetic anomalies in infants through stem cell transplants before they are even born; we will have founded clinical centers to transplant artificial organs of partial complexity and we will have sent a manned space mission further than the International Space Station.”
“It will be unthinkable to not have a medical file for every citizen that comes with preventative checks for possible predisposition factors.”
“The adoption of the applications of regenerative medicine, bio-nanotechnology and the capability to store stem cells in statutory bio-banks will mark the realization of individualized therapies designed specifically for each patient, thus negating the need for generalized clinical practices that are only partially effective.”
ON WORKING WITH NASA
“NASA is a wonderland where opportunities are born,” Antoniadou told Neo Kosmos. “I would be delighted to earn a coveted spot in the astronaut corps and to have the unique opportunity to conduct research in space. However, I don’t have an ultimate dream; it is understandable that the chances of becoming an astronaut are in general very few and thus I’m trying to focus all of the scattered rays of my mind upon my research.”
“I don’t know what the future holds, but I do believe that desire beats facts.”
ON ROLE MODELS
“I admire many people but I don’t entertain the concept of role models,”Antoniadou told Neo Kosmos, “since I believe that knowledge and admirable feats are attainable if only we are sufficiently sceptical, curious and honest about our vast ignorance but also determined to keep learning. I find that Peter Diamandis is a very fascinating entrepreneur. I believe that his intellect, entrepreneurial spirit and most importantly his vision to bring disruptive technologies to life will transform our world.”
“I was blessed to be born in the land of light, Greece, where philosophy, art, politics and literature thrived and became the roots of modern science.”
“Greece planted the seeds to cultivate the European idea and spirit” Antoniadou told Neo Kosmos. “I believe that Greece has always been a very transformative place within the European landscape where nothing is guaranteed and everything is possible.”
“I believe it’s time to stop the current tendency of ‘borrowing’ from the future and instead focus on producing pioneering work to move forward… streamline the various sectors of the economy, implement long overdue reforms and boost production. I’m hopeful that Greece will become more transparent and less centralised, so that it can begin to contemplate its role in Europe as the bastion of civilisation, philosophical thought and scientific innovation.”
Named one of Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 in health care in 2015, Eleni Antoniadou is the co-founder of the startup Transplants Without Donors, which aims to jumpstart the use of lab-generated organs in clinical transplants. Read more at: huffingtonpost.com