Meet our 2016 Global Leader, Eleni Antoniadou

Eleni Antoniadou is a Greek researcher and scientist who has a passion to use her knowledge to create an alternative to organ transplantation. An activist at heart, her vision is to combat illegal organ trafficking by developing artificial organs as an alternative pathway. She has been involved in volunteering missions across Latin America including Peru and Costa Rica.

At the age of 28, Eleni currently serves as President of the European Health Parliament in Brussels and is co-founder of Transplants without Donors, an organization which provides alternative life-saving therapy for transplantations through artificial organ development. This year, she was recognized as recipient of “Giuseppe Sciacca” International Award for “Science & Research”. She has been named a 2016 Tällberg Foundation Global Leader, along with Thuli Madonsela, Christiana Figueres, Celina de Sola, and Sunitha Krishnan. Recently, Eleni shared her views about her life, her work and her future goals.

In one of your interviews, you quoted June Jordan’s poem, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.” This seems to capture your drive, optimism, curiosity, entrepreneurialism, compassion. What is the source of your drive and how do you maintain it?

I think that rather than pointing out what’s wrong in the world and focusing only on the negativity, we have to point out what is possible, to figure out the path, to make it happen. This is the reason why I said that it’s up to us. It has come to the point where we have to connect the dots between the science, politics, and research. We have to connect how these different worlds, how people from mentalities, different mindsets, different cultures can come together and create solutions.

How do you connect the dots between science, politics and research? And what solutions does your research seek to address?

After I left Greece, I had the opportunity to compete for a position in the NASA Academy which changed a lot of the things that I believe I could do because I didn’t believe in myself enough back in the days. Maybe many people around me would never believe as well that somebody from Greece can ever make it and make their dream. I find that getting into these opportunities and combining the things that I’m more passionate about gave me the strength to realize that maybe if we connect different things like the scientific part, the political part, then maybe we can create a solution.

My major focus is on trying to solve or to approach the transplantation problem. Of course one of the most obvious problems is that the waiting list in most countries are enormous. Apart from the fact that there’s not enough awareness for people to register in the donor registry, it’s also the problem of having increased organ trafficking in third world countries. This is the biggest motivation for what I’m doing because although I’ve already started studying tissue engineering and organ bio-engineering, it wasn’t really clear for me how big of an urgency it was.

At this point, I believe that it’s not just enough to create laws that impose stricter sanctions against anyone who is participating organ trafficking. It is important also to create an alternative solution.

What are the main barriers in your field and how do you intend to overcome them?
 
 I would say we are standing in the shoulders of giants. We need to have expert transplant surgeons, expert material engineers and electrical engineers, biomedical engineers, and people like me in medicine, in order to combine knowledge to find solutions. I think that it is important to raise awareness…so that the people are more aware that this is an evolving science. The more people are aware, the more they realize that this is an urgent issue, the more the government and the more the foundations will fund this type of research to push it forward. It’s also important to somehow unify the efforts from different institutions or universities that are working on smaller topics of this greater issue. One team alone cannot handle the complexities in the scientific barriers that the organ transplantation field has.

What would you consider your main accomplishment to date?

The most important thing I think is seeing the patients that we have in the clinics have hope again. It is very difficult every day. It is something humbling. There is a humbling sense of what you do that it’s so important that the patient is left behind hoping that you will come up with a solution or hoping that the next day something new will happen and the transplant that he needs will be matched with his compatibility profile.

It is difficult for me to believe that any other accomplishment in terms of science or anything else is as meaningful as that. Nothing can replenish, nothing can top this feeling when you know that you have helped a family and you see them hugging, telling you thank you, you changed their life. There is nothing more humbling than that.