Atala was born in Peru, and grew up in Coral Gables, Florida. He is of Lebanese descent. Atala attended the University of Miami and has an undergraduate degree in Psychology. He went to medical school at the University of Louisville where he also completed his residency in urology. He was a fellow at the Harvard Medical School affiliated Children's Hospital Boston from 1990 to 1992 where he trained under world-renowned pediatric urologic surgeons Alan Retik and Hardy Hendren. He served as the Director of the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Cellular Therapeutics at Children's Hospital Boston. His work there involved growing human tissues and organs to replace those damaged by disease or defects. This work became important because of shortages in the organ-donor program.
Atala continued his work in tissue engineering and printable organs after moving to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the School of Medicine in 2004. Atala led the team that developed the first lab-grown organ, a bladder, to be implanted into a human.
Along with Harvard University researchers and as described in the journal Nature Biotechnology, he has announced that stem cells with enormous potential can be harvested from the amniotic fluid of pregnant women. These amniotic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can be manipulated to differentiate into various types of mature cells that make up nerve, muscle, bone, and other tissues while avoiding the problems of tumor formation and ethical concerns that are associated with embryonic stem cells.
With respect to the amniotic fluid stem cells ("AFS" cells), Atala said the following:
"The cells come from the fetus, which breathes and sucks in, then excretes, the amniotic fluid throughout pregnancy;"
"Like embryonic stem cells, they appear to thrive in lab dishes for years, while normal cells, called somatic cells, die after a time ;"
"They are easier to grow than human embryonic stem cells. And, unlike embryonic stem cells, they do not form a type of benign tumour called a teratoma;" and
"A bank with 100,000 specimens of the amniotic stem cells theoretically could supply 99 per cent of the US population with perfect genetic matches for transplants."
Atala's work was seized on by opponents of the Embryonic Stem Cell Research Bill (a part of the 100-Hour Plan of the Democratic Party in the 110th United States Congress) as a more moral alternative. He wrote a letter saying, inter alia, "Some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells. I disagree with that assertion."
The company Tengion is attempting to commercialize some of Atala's regenerative medicine technologies.
Atala has been widely recognized for his scientific contributions. His faculty website lists awards and citations including:The Christopher Columbus Foundation Award, bestowed on a living American who is currently working on a discovery that will significantly affect society.
The World Technology Award in Health and Medicine, presented to individuals achieving significant, lasting progress.
The Samuel D. Gross Prize, awarded every 5 years to a national leading surgical researcher by the Philadelphia Academy of Surgery.
The Barringer Medal from the American Association of Genitourinary Surgeons.
The Gold Cystoscope award from the American Urological Association for advances in the field.
In 2011 he was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He was named by Scientific American as a Medical Treatments Leader of the Year for his contributions to the fields of cell, tissue and organ regeneration. Dr. Atala's work was listed as Time Magazine's top 10 medical breakthroughs of the year, and as Discover Magazine's Number 1 Top Science Story of the Year in the field of medicine in 2007.
He serves on the Editorial Board of the scientific journal Rejuvenation Research and the National Board of Advisors for High Point University.