Tissue Trailblazer

Steve Zylius / UCI

Tissue Trailblazer

Kyriacos A. Athanasiou | Distinguished Professor, Biomedical Engineering

Kyriacos A. Athanasiou has spent his career inventing biomimetic tissues for use in treating damaged knees, jaws, 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. He recently joined UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering as a Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering. A Cyprus native of Greek ancestry, Athanasiou earned a 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. Athanasiou has served as president of the Biomedical Engineering Society and is currently editor-in-chief of Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

He says a major motivating factor in his move to UCI was the institution’s central role in Irvine’s well-established medical technology ecosystem. He plans to help further solidify that standing and build up UCI as the preeminent training ground for future leaders in biomedical engineering. Athanasiou sat down to share some thoughts with UCI Magazine contributor Brian Bell shortly after his arrival at UCI last fall.

Q: What type of work were you doing in your early career?

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.

Q: Were there any real-world applications 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.

“To me, it’s about the excitement and passion of coming up with solutions to some of the most difficult problems that afflict humans.”

Q: Would you say this early work opened new doors for you?

Yes, I saw early on what was doable and what made sense. I launched my first firm with a $250,000 investment, and a year later, we raised $7.5 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.

Q: 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. That’s the thing that really represents me fully. Also, I realized that I’ve never been interested in creating products solely to make 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.

Q: What are some of your notable projects here at UCI?

We have a National Institutes of Health grant for articular cartilage work. We also have an NIH grant on regenerating the meniscus, a knee 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, premenopausal 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 replicate all the properties of the true biological native tissues. We use tissue engineering to come up with solutions so that pain is gone and function returns. We’re super excited about this area of research.

Q: 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.

It makes perfect sense to be working on medical devices and instruments here in Irvine because we’re 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.