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New biomed engineering chair thrives on ‘change’

By Clifton B. Parker on September 25, 2009 in University

You may as well race against Lance Armstrong as try to keep pace with Kyriacos Athanasiou, the new distinguished professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering

Athanasiou has authored or co-authored some 225 peer-reviewed papers (in 2009 alone, his name appears as principal investigator on 18.) He is a co-founder of five biomedical engineering companies, including one that was sold for $75 million in 2006. He has 28 issued and pending patents; holds two adjunct professorships at the University of Texas; and in October, will take over as editor-in-chief of the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, the flagship publication for his profession.

Now Athanasiou, 49, is champing at the bit to bring the achievements of his new department to the attention of the world.

“If you look at what we’re doing in the department, we’re rocking the world here. And people don’t know about us,” he said. “There is this dichotomy, this gap, between people’s perception of us and the top-tier research of our outstanding faculty and students.”

Ask Athanasiou why he left his previous position as the Karl F. Hasselmann Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University in Houston to come to Davis, and you begin to understand what motivates him.

“I came here because of promise. Rice is an exceptional place, but it has reached a steady state. I like to effect change. I like things with a delta,” he said, referring to the Greek letter that serves as a mathematical symbol indicating a change in value. “Here there is a tremendous opportunity to build, to extend, to expand and to bring our visibility up.”

As a seasoned entrepreneur, Athanasiou sees great opportunity in the “highly inventive, highly translational research” that many in his department are conducting. He’s already scheduled meetings to discuss the business possibilities of this research with an old colleague from Rice, the new dean of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, Steve Currall. And he plans to forge ties between the department and the campus’s technology transfer office.

“What I hope to do here is work as a facilitator, an effector and a cheerleader,” he said. “This department has excellence imprinted in its DNA. How can I not be excited?”

From Cyprus to the Wild West

A Greek, Athanasiou grew up in the island nation of Cyprus. From an early age, he knew he wasn’t going to stay put. “I was growing up watching Bonanza and Gunsmoke, and I had a desire to go to the United States of America,” he said. “There was something mythical, something wonderful about it.”

In 1980, after serving two years in the Greek army, he headed to the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island. Even at this early stage of life, he knew how to get things done. In just nine years he notched his belt with four degrees in mechanical engineering: a B.S. from the institute, and an M.S., Ph.M. and Ph.D. all from Columbia University.

Only then did he make his way to the real West.

Not exactly to Gunsmoke’s Dodge City or Bonanza’s Ponderosa Ranch, but to the home of the Alamo, San Antonio, where for 10 years he held an array of appointments at the University of Texas. These included assistant and associate professorships in orthopaedics and mechanical engineering and directorship of the Musculoskeletal Bioengineering Center.

He spent another 10 years in Texas — at Rice University — before coming to Davis in August.

Engineering cartilage

About half of Athanasiou’s research group accompanied him in the move from Rice: one senior scientist, two postdoctoral fellows and six Ph.D. students. One of the group’s principal focuses is the regeneration and repair of cartilage.

Padding the ends of joints that are constantly being exercised, such as knees, shoulders, jaws and feet, cartilage is a tissue that is central to our quality of life. Yet it is one of the very rare tissues that lacks the ability to heal itself. When damaged by injury, or degenerated by osteoarthritis, the effects can be long-lasting and devastating.

“If I cut a tiny line on articular cartilage (the cartilage that covers the surfaces of bones at joints), it will never be erased,” Athanasiou said. “It’s like writing on the moon. If I go back to look at it a year later, it will look exactly the same.”

Work that he and his group started in the early 1990s has resulted in the only FDA-approved products for treatment of small lesions on articular cartilage. (In total, Athanaisou’s patents have resulted in 15 FDA-approved products.) But bigger things are in store.

“We are now in a position to engineer cartilage in the laboratory,” Athanasiou explained. “This will be live, biological cartilage that will not only fill defects, but will potentially be able to resurface the entire surface of joints that have been destroyed by osteoarthritis.”

Starting with stem cells, including adult stem cells from bone marrow and skin as well as human embryonic stem cells, Athanasiou and his group have already engineered the tissue in the lab. Now they are experimenting with various chemical and mechanical stimuli to improve its properties.

Currently, joint replacements using metal and plastic prosthetics are the only recourse for the one in five adults who will suffer major joint damage from osteoarthritis. “But when we can talk about resurfacing the entire surface of the joint with new cartilage,” Athanasiou said, “that is huge.”

Greek olives

After nearly 30 years in the U.S., Athanasiou still maintains close ties to Greece. He and his wife, Kiley, are raising their two sons, Aristos and Thasos, bilingually and they own a house and nearly six acres of 200-year-old olive trees on the Pelion peninsula on the country’s Aegean coast.

Kiley — who learned Greek from listening to her husband speak it with their sons and from the year the family spent in Greece in 2006 — travels to Greece each year to oversee the olive harvest and pressing. She will be putting her experience, along with her M.B.A. in international business, to work as an assistant director at the Mondavi Institute’s Olive Center.

“What she has said so far is that the olive oil here is good,” Athanasiou said, “and she hopes that she will help in it becoming the best olive oil possible.”

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,