Newly Appointed Professor Translates Inventions to Treatments

Kyriacos AthanasiouOct. 10, 2017 - Kyriacos A. Athanasiou recently joined UC Irvine’s Samueli School of Engineering as a distinguished professor of biomedical engineering. The senior academic researcher has spent his career inventing biomimetic tissues for use in treating damaged knees, jaw joints, hips, shoulders and other joints. Along the way he has become a leading authority on the process of translating engineering innovations into commercially available medical instruments and devices.

Athanasiou, a native of Cyprus of Greek ancestry, earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1989 and went straight into a faculty position at the University of Texas where he remained for 10 years. He then moved to Rice University in Houston where he worked for another decade. His most recent position prior to coming to UCI was chair of the biomedical engineering department at UC Davis. He has served as president of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) and he is currently the editor-in-chief of the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

He says a major motivating factor in his move to UCI was the institution’s central position in Irvine’s well-established medical technology ecosystem. He plans to help further solidify that standing while building up UCI as the preeminent training ground for future leaders in biomedical engineering. Following are Athanasiou’s responses from an interview conducted shortly after his arrival at UCI.

How would you characterize your early career?

I started as a straight academic after finishing my Ph.D., publishing academic papers, working with students, etcetera. I went through the ranks extremely fast, from Ph.D. to associate professor in about four years. I was single, working extremely hard, and at the time, I was starting to feel I was burning out at an early stage.

What sort of work were you doing?

With my group at the University of Texas, I was working on inventing biomaterials to make cartilage heal and repair itself. There weren’t a lot of remedies for people suffering with joint ailments in those days. The doctor would give the patient painkillers until the time came for a knee or hip replacement with implants made out of metal or plastic. We viewed the problem of a small defect in cartilage as a purely mechanics issue involving stress concentration, which intensifies in areas in and around tiny defects in joints. That’s how we came up with biodegradable implants that we would use to fill in the cracks, allowing for the return of smooth joint movement.

Was there any real-world application for this research?

After some success, we began to think about turning our invention into a product. This being the early 1990s, people were not as used to the concept of academics starting companies and commercializing their innovations. It was up to our team to work with university administrators to develop a set of guidelines. Ultimately we patented the only product in the world at the time for treating small lesions in articular cartilage. I created a company and began licensing the technology to other firms.

Would you say this early work opened news doors for you?

Yes, I saw early on what was doable and what made sense. My first firm started at a quarter of a million dollars in investment, but a year later we raised seven and a half million. We brought to the market 15 Food & Drug Administration-approved products. I was still conducting research, applying for grants and mentoring students, but I was also working hard on formalizing systems for academe-based biomedical technology translation and commercialization.

You stayed in academia even after forming companies. Why?

I came close to leaving, to be honest. I had the corner office, and it was exciting to be creating all of these successful products, but my heart was and always will be in academics. I love what I do. I love our research. I love teaching graduate and undergraduate students. I can’t ever imagine leaving this field. To me that’s the thing that really represents me fully. Also, I realized that, I’ve never been interested in creating products solely for making money. To me it’s about the excitement and passion of coming up with solutions to some of the most difficult problems that afflict humans.

What are some of your other innovations?

Another of our products is an intraosseous infusion device to deliver drugs and other vital substances through bones, not merely through veins. When someone is in shock, following a vehicle crash or some other traumatic event, it’s nearly impossible to administer life-saving drugs, because you can’t find a functioning vein. I was listening to medical doctors discussing this at a conference one time, and I asked, “why couldn’t you just inject drugs right into bone marrow?” We ultimately developed a spinning, paddle-tipped needle that penetrates bone in half a second. It can be used in emergency situations and can also be used to start an IO line, as opposed to an IV, to deliver drugs or blood directly to the inside of bones. Variations on the technology are commonly carried by emergency response and ambulance teams all over the world, and it’s been featured on popular television shows such as ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and Inside Combat on the National Geographic channel.

In a different line of research, we learned that we can regenerate mandibular bone segments. Patient one for this treatment was actually a dog with cancer on its jaw bone. We did an exact measurement of the removed segment and 3-D printed the biomaterial we created in the exact same shape and size, soaked it with chemicals and put it in. Lo and behold, a few weeks later, the dog was running and catching, healthy as can be. The same procedure has been done numerous times with other animals that were patients, not clinical trial subjects. We would like to make this treatment available to humans, but it’s a long-term process to make that happen.

We’ve also been creating artificial ears for human beings with cancer. Like I said, all of this stuff is in parallel to our main research, which is articular cartilage. We’re interested in doing away with metal and plastic, and healing cartilage with fully biological and functional, tissue-engineered constructs.

What are some of your notable projects here at UCI?

We have a National Institute of Health (NIH) grant for the articular cartilage work I just described. We also have an NIH grant on regenerating the meniscus, an area of frequent injury for many athletes. We are working to create tissue-engineered structures that look and behave like the real biological meniscus. Supported by a third NIH grant, we also are working on the temporomandibular or jaw joint, specifically a structure between the articulating surfaces called the TMJ disc. The most intriguing thing about it is that close to 90 percent of TMJ problems occur in young, pre-menopausal women. So there’s a huge gender paradox.

Our goal is to make fully biological, fully alive, fully mechanically similar structures to repair damage in the human body. We’re trying to mimic, to replicate all of the properties of the true biological native tissues. We use tissue-engineering to come up with solutions so pain is gone and function returns. We’re super excited about this area of research.

What are your plans for the near future?

We are starting an initiative called DELTAi (driving engineering and life-science translational advances at Irvine) to help translate engineering advances to medicine. It combines mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering with materials science, all under the umbrella of biomedical engineering. It brings in the life sciences, such as biology, biochemistry, histology and pathology. And all of them point to the direction of human medicine as well as veterinary medicine.

We want to create an environment that allows us to train individuals, perhaps at the postdoctoral level, who will be able to understand the elements of the whole process of translating engineering advances to medicine.

It makes perfect sense to be working on medical devices and instruments here in Irvine because we are in the capital of this research area in the country. It’s all around us, in an academically excellent and vibrant environment. I think the conditions are ripe and right for us to create a structure through which we can train some of our fellows in that pathway.

– Brian Bell, UCI

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