“My heart was and always will be in academics,” says Kyriacos Athanasiou, UCI Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering. “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.” Debbie Morales / UCI

Joint venturer

New professor has a knack for translating biomedical inventions into commercial treatments

Kyriacos “Kerry” Athanasiou recently joined UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering as a Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering. The senior academic has spent his career inventing biomimetic tissue for treating damaged knees, jaws, hips, shoulders and other joints. Along the way, Athanasiou has become an authority on translating engineering innovations into commercially available medical instruments and devices.

Of Greek ancestry, the Cyprus native earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1989 and joined the faculty at the University of Texas, where he remained for 10 years. He then moved to Rice University in Houston, where he taught and conducted research for another decade. Athanasiou’s most recent position was chair of the biomedical engineering department at UC Davis. He has served as president of the Biomedical Engineering Society and is currently editor in chief of Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

Athanasiou says a major motivating factor in his coming 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. Here, Athanasiou discusses his career, his inventions and his vision for the future.

Q: What sort of work did you do in your early career?

A: 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 mechanical 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: Was there any real-world application for this research? 

A: 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, or joint, cartilage. I created a company and began licensing the technology to other firms.

Q: You stayed in academia even after forming companies. Why?

A: 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 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.

Q: What are some of your other innovations?

A: Another of our products is an intraosseous infusion device to deliver drugs and other vital substances through bones, not merely through veins. 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 Rescue,” on the National Geographic channel.

In a different line of research, we learned that we can regenerate mandibular bone segments. The first patient for this treatment was actually a dog with cancer in its jawbone. 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. A few weeks later, the dog was running and catching, healthy as can be. We would like to make this treatment available to humans, but it’s a long-term process.

We’ve also been creating artificial ears. All of this 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.

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

A: We have a National Institutes of Health grant for the articular cartilage work I just described. We have another NIH grant on regenerating the meniscus, the cartilage pad between the joints of the knee and an area of frequent injury for many athletes. We are trying to create tissue-engineered structures that look and behave like the real biological meniscus. Supported by a third NIH grant, we are also working on the temporomandibular, or jaw, joint – specifically, a structure 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 use tissue engineering to come up with solutions that eliminate pain and restore function.

Q: What are your plans for the near future?

A: We’re starting an initiative called Driving Engineering & Life Science Translational Advances @ Irvine, or DELTAi. It combines mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering with materials science – all under the umbrella of biomedical engineering – and brings in the life sciences, such as biology, biochemistry, histology and pathology. We want to create an environment that allows us to train individuals, perhaps at the postdoctoral level, to understand the whole process of translating engineering advances to medicine.