Until recently, athletes with damaged knee joints faced little beyond the need to contemplate new careers. Adults suffering from osteoarthritis could choose between only metal and plastic prosthetics.

The reason? Cartilage, unlike most other human tissue, cannot heal itself.

“If I cut a tiny line on articular cartilage — the cartilage that covers the surface of bones at joints — it’ll never be erased,” observed Professor Kyriacos Athanasiou, during a 2009 interview. “It’s like writing on the moon. If I look at it a year later, it will look exactly the same.”

ka2speakingAthanasiou and his research team have been growing cartilage tissue in the lab from adult stem cells taken from bone marrow and skin, along with from human embryonic stem cells. Athanasiou’s goal will have a huge impact on treatment; he desires nothing less than “live, biological cartilage that not only will fill defects, but potentially will be able to resurface the entire surface of joints destroyed by osteoarthritis.”

Athanasiou has led colleagues in similar projects since his days in the early 1990s at the University of Texas — both the Austin and San Antonio campuses — and, later, Rice University. Such work led to the only FDA-approved products for treatment of small lesions on articular cartilage. Athanasiou co-founded his first company, Osteogiologics, in 1993; several others have followed. He has seen 21 patents approved, and another seven are pending.

Today, Athanasiou is a Distinguished Professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Biomechanical Engineering, a position he accepted in August 2009. He obtained a summa cum laude undergraduate degree at the New York Institute of Technology; he followed this with three advanced degrees at Columbia University, where he began to concentrate on bioengineering. Aside from his extensive work at the University of Texas and Rice University — he continues to be an adjunct professor of bioengineering at the latter — Athanasiou also served for a year as visiting professor at the Institute of Biomedical Research and Technology, and the Department of Orthoepedics, at the University of Thessaly, in Greece.

In October 2011, Athanasiou received the Distinguished Service Award — one of the highest possible honors — from the Biomedical Engineering Society. That same month, he was named to the scientific advisory board of the Histogenics Corp., a regenerative medicine company that intends to focus on cartilage repair.

One day soon, people will walk and move better, thanks to Athanasiou’s efforts.

For more information on the College of Engineering’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, please email Oliver Ramsey.