PhD student Eleni Antoniadou co-founded the London-based start-up Transplants Without Donors in 2009 to develop tissue-engineered organs. Antoniadou, who also blogs for The Huffington Post, was shortlisted in September in the science category of the 2013 Women of the Future Awards, Britain's industry-funded search for successful early-career women.
What led you to tissue engineering?
I was working at a hospital as an undergraduate and saw that prosthetics had limitations. I wanted to do research that could give patients something better. I found regenerative medicine and tissue engineering to be promising fields.
What was your first tissue-engineering project?
While studying for a master's in nanotechnology and regenerative medicine at University College London, I worked on neural generation — testing biomaterials that could become artificial nerves. I also got involved in developing a business plan for an artificial trachea. I felt overwhelmed when it was successfully received by a patient. It was proof that tissue engineering could be applied in clinical practice.
So you launched the start-up soon afterwards?
While in London, I joined several physicians and scientists to co-found Transplants Without Donors so that we could work on tissue-engineering scaffolds for several different organs. In launching this company, I came to appreciate the complexity of the science behind tissue engineering. In 2010, after receiving a scholarship from the Fulbright Program and the Institute of International Education, I came to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to get a master's in bioengineering, with a focus on developing artificial skin. This is challenging, yet is a product that many patients need.
What has been the start-up's main challenge?
Securing financial support. But it was also challenging to find people with the appropriate multidisciplinary background. We had to learn how to design experiments so that all the scientists on our 25-member team could contribute to and understand them. We are hoping that the products we launch next year — mostly tissue-engineering scaffolds and bioreactors for different organs — will be used by other researchers. Sharing products throughout labs could really help to move the field forward.
You spent time at NASA recently. How did that influence your research?
I was beginning a PhD at the University of Illinois when the European Space Agency and NASA selected me to work at the biosciences division of NASA's centre for nanotechology for several months. That was a turning point in my career: it was the most innovative place I'd ever been. I saw the importance of tackling big, risky projects.
How did you start blogging for The Huffington Post?
After being nominated for the award, I was invited to write for the blog to raise awareness of the future of technology and of women in science. So far, I've written about the future of tissue-engineered organs and the importance of space exploration. Thanks to my posts, I've had scientists approach me to collaborate on projects and heard from people who are curious about tissue engineering.
Name a pivotal moment in your career.
In the past few years, I've been to Peru and Costa Rica to volunteer with the Foundation for the International Medical Relief of Children, a non-profit organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that sends out teams to perform operations or offer health care. We gave vaccinations and pharmaceuticals to sick kids, including those victimized by the illegal organ trade. It was really fulfilling and has helped to drive everything we do in the lab.
What do you plan to do after you get your PhD?
I would like to do research in the lab, working full-time at Transplants Without Donors to bring products to market. We need to develop a legislative framework for tissue-engineering products — one that will be universal.