Eleni Antoniadou is founder of Transplants Without Donors, which creates artificial organs for transplants. As of June 9, 2014, the United States had 122,949 people on transplant waiting lists, barely 15% of whom will receive an organ. Aside from donor rarity and the stress of waiting, transplant patients also face infection, incompatibility issues and costly immunosuppressant medication. To solve this problem, Transplants Without Donors supplies transplant organs with no need for human donation: they are created artificially from stem cells. Initially, Transplants Without Donors is focusing on low-complexity organs – skin, arteries, nerves, heart valves, ears, noses and tracheas. High-complexity organs such as kidneys or hearts are a more distant prospect. Visibility is crucial to medical start-ups striving to change mind sets, and this is one of the benefits Eleni is hoping to gain from the Awards. She herself works to heighten awareness on the issue of organ trafficking in Latin America and Africa: each year Transplants Without Donors funds a month-long mission to bring healthcare and information to remote communities targeted by this scourge.
How did you get into the medical/tech industry?
I think it was a mixture of naivety and temerity to engage myself in seemingly impossible challenges! The fusion of medicine and technology has always fascinated me, but my volunteering missions in third world countries, in order to combat illegal organ trading gave me motivation in abundance. Thus, I realized how crucial it is to translate innovative technologies, like artificial organs, into clinical practice.
Tell us about Transplants Without Donors. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?
During my undergraduate studies, my research interest gravitated towards tele-surgical robotics and brain-machine interactions, but while working with patients in need of mechanical prosthetics I realized that their quality of life was inadequate as they always felt socially isolated (their robotic prosthetic limbs were thought of as a transition towards cyborgs rather than a medical enhancement). That is how Transplants Without Donors was born. I soon got engaged in the fields of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering that can synergistically mimic the biophysical properties of tissues and organs.
Transplant Without Donors aims to disrupt the medical field by providing the research tools to make artificial organs an alternative therapeutic pathway for transplantations. We believe that artificial organs will challenge the status quo and the accepted wisdom in the clinical world, and also combat illegal organ trading by annihilating the need for donor organs.
What strategic partnerships have you implemented that have attributed to Transplants Without Donors's success?
Transplant surgeons and technical know-how from transplant units is essential for the development of our research and we try to extend our collaborations with specialized clinics in San Francisco and London. In a hyperconnected world with massive amounts of cognitive surplus, it is important to gain as much expertise as possible in order to realize our project with increased efficiency and reliability.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
The medical industry trends implicate individualized therapies and the disruption of clinical pathways through prognostic telemonitoring enhancements and stem cell research. However Transplants Without Donors doesn’t chase trends, as it’s built outside of this mold.
We want to solve the huge problem of transplantations, or at least make a significant dent in it. Consequently, our strategy is to fill the technological gaps in existing donor transplants, while pushing the boundaries of scientific innovation a little further and introducing artificial organs into clinics.
Live in a constant reboot phase: don’t stay idle in your successes or failures.
Transplants Without Donors's Motto?
Don't undertake a project unless it's manifestly important and nearly impossible.
Your greatest success as co-founder of Transplants Without Donors?
I believe that my greatest success is that I have contributed in deconditioning the thinking of people about innovative technologies and artificial organ research.
Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
One particular experience that made an indelible impression on me and has set the bar for my own introspection was during my volunteering missions to combat illegal organ trade in Latin America. I encountered human tragedy in its cruelest form, and many times I’m searching those memories for guidance about how to tackle new challenges.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
As an aspiring entrepreneur myself, it’s hard to give one sole advice when you’re trying to shrink the time between a concept and reality and that’s why I believe that entrepreneurship is a battle between insane optimism and sane skepticism. However, it’s helpful if you learn how to be versatile, extraordinary disciplined with time management and ruthless about where you chose to spend your time and energy.
Favorite travel destination?
I might be a bit biased, but I think the most incredible place on earth are the Greek islands!
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
That’s really hard especially when all the food winks at me when I step into the kitchen or open the fridge. But I would chose a gyros and homemade (by my mom!) pomegranate juice.
What literature is on your bed stand?
“In search of Lost Time” by M. Roust, “Conditions” by A. Badiou, “Report to Greco” by N Kazantzakis, “La bete humaine” By E. Zola, and “Brave New World” by A. Huxley.
Role model - business and personal?
I don’t believe in role models, but I find Elizabeth Holmes and Peter Diamandis very fascinating entrepreneurs. I believe that their intellect, their entrepreneurial spirit and most importantly their vision to bring disruptive technologies to life will transform our world.
Most interesting headline you've read this week?
“Hubble Finds 'New' Dwarf Galaxy in Milky Way's Backyard”
What's next for Transplants Without Donors?
We live in a world where potential is universal but opportunity is not, and at Transplants Without Donors we hope to make a very direct impact on the right to life for everyone.
Backbone of the organ
The company has developed a technology based on a tissue-engineered scaffold, which co-founder Eleni Antoniadou, 27, calls ‘the backbone of the organ’. It is produced from biomaterials and is currently made in three different sizes: children age 1 to 5, teenagers up to age 15 and adults. Key to the scaffold’s success is the tissue-engineered bioreactor, a transparent device in which to grow the organ – rather like an incubator – which mimics the conditions of the human body in a sterile environment and enables scientists to monitor organ growth. ‘It’s a first in its field,’ says Eleni.
Developed in the US with collaboration from expert teams in Chicago and California, the bioreactors are an essential player in the company’s strategy. By proving their efficacy in the traditional transplant context, where they can be used to keep donor organs alive, Transplants Without Donors aims to remove the barriers many medical professionals have about artificial organs, and is targeting key transplant hospitals in London and the US as early adopters. Clinical approval is still pending but the bioreactors can already be used for research or with specific patient approval for clinical use.
‘US legislation does not allow these types of artificial organ transplant yet, so the first operations take place in Europe,’ says Eleni, who, after graduating in biomedicine in her native Greece, participated in the first successful artificial trachea transplant on a late-stage cancer patient at the Royal Free Hospital in London during her master's in 2009. ‘It is a hard path,’ she concedes, ‘it means taking chances and challenging what we know.’
Eleni is not one to be put off by roads less travelled. When not busy at Transplants Without Donors, she trains NASA astronauts in biomedical experimentation for the International Space Station. Could it be her fascination with space that spurred her to create a start-up to develop artificial organs? ‘People think it sounds like science fiction, but this work has been going on in labs for years, now it’s time to take it into hospitals.’ A background in mechanical prosthetics – robotic arms and limbs – heightened her awareness of how different a patient feels with an artificial limb. Eleni sees tissue regeneration as the answer. In transplants too, avoiding anti-immunity medication and knowing the organ came from your own tissue would doubtless have a positive psychological effect. ‘This is the future!’ she beams.