Eleni Antoniadou is 25 years old and is already the co-founder of a company, Transplants without Donors, where she is also chief of scientific research. She spends half the year in Chicago and the other half in Silicon Valley, working on three separate projects, while also volunteering her time for humanitarian aid missions in Latin America.
This accomplished young scientist was voted Woman of the Year for 2013 at the annual British-based FDM Everywoman in Technology Awards, which took place in London on March 19, organized by the FDM Group, which specializes in recruitment and hands out the award annually to promote excellence among female scientists.
“If you don’t chase your dreams, you will never get a hold of them,” Antoniadou told Kathimerini via Skype in between lectures at the University of Illinois, where she teaches bioengineering. “This distinction was a major surprise.”
Even though the FDM Everywoman in Technology Awards are normally granted to British citizens, it is not the first time that the Thessaloniki-born Antoniadou has beaten the odds.
“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,” she said.
Antoniadou began her studies at the IT and Biomedical Applications Department of the University of Central Greece in Lamia.
Following her graduation in Greece, she headed to Britain, where her academic career really took off.
“In 2009 I had the honor of being selected to work on the research team of one of the top scientists in modern medicine, Professor Alexander Seifalian, at University College London,” explained Antoniadou. “Together with my classmate Claire Crowley, we developed a tissue engineered trachea and a business plan so that this experimental product could become a clinical product.”
The joint project was awarded the top prize at UCL’s Translation to Clinic and to Commercialization of Nanotechnology Products Competition.
Elsewhere in the UK, a 36-year-old patient suffering from late-stage tracheal cancer heard of the project and approached the scientists.
“He got in touch with us and asked whether the artificial trachea could be used as a transplant. We were extremely guarded as we hadn’t yet held an in vivo trial,” said Antoniadou, adding that the patient was willing to take the risk and the surgery was successfully carried out a few months later.
“He often expresses his gratitude to use, but the feeling is mutual because my life changed as well,” said Antoniadou.
This case was the first successful artificial organ transplant in the history of medicine and the publications that came in its wake, as well as the founding of Transplants without Donors, brought a barrage of job and research proposals to the young Greek scientist, who eventually succumbed to the allure of the United States, where she is currently working on her PhD at the University of Illinois after receiving no less than nine scholarships to do so.
“I am the only woman in my department and the only European as well,” she told Kathimerini. “The competition is intense, and I must admit that it took a bit of extra effort to be accepted as a Greek.”
Meanwhile, in 2012, Antoniadou was selected from among 1,200 students to do a course at the NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration, landing a job at the Center for Nanotechnology and Mars Exploration at Silicon Valley.
“We study the changes in the nervous systems of astronauts, whose sense of orientation and balance is affected by the change in atmospheric pressure,” explained Antoniadou. “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 the company she co-founded.
“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,” explained Antoniadou. “Our work is aimed at cancer patients or people who have been in accidents.”
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,” she said. “Such things make me dig in my heels even more to continue my research at any cost.”