Daryl Kipke, Ph.D.
Probing His Brain: How BME Professor Daryl Kipke Parlayed Four U-M Degrees into a Career at the Leading Edge
When one looks at the accomplishments of U-M BME professor Daryl Kipke, it's hard not to notice how prescient – or astonishingly lucky – the institution was for, as he puts it, "taking a chance on him" as a graduate student.
Though now an internationally recognized researcher, director of U-M's Center for Neural Communication Technology, and two-time neurotechnology entrepreneur, Kipke credits a Peterson's guide, a serendipitous meeting on the streets of Chicago, and a conditional acceptance by the U-M for the arc of his career.
It started unremarkably enough. "I'm an engineer intrinsically," he says. "I've always torn things apart. My father was a civil engineer, so I went to school thinking I wanted to be a civil engineer, too." Then mid-way through his freshman year at Grand Valley State University, he picked up a Peterson's guide. "I can remember the moment I came across biomedical engineering," he says. "I knew that's what I wanted to do."
So, he transferred to U-M for his sophomore year and began an interdisciplinary program called "engineering science" because it was the closest U-M had to a BME undergraduate degree at the time. "It was a good program," says Kipke. "But the dirty little secret was that it was hard to get a job in BME with a bachelor's degree." So, he took a job as a business management consultant with Anderson Consulting. Despite "living large," as he puts it, he quickly grew bored.
"I was walking down the streets of Chicago one day, and I ran into a friend from U-M," he says. "We'd worked in the same lab as undergrads, and he remarked that our PI had really complimented a research project I did." A lightbulb went off, and Kipke decided to return to Michigan for research.
He applied and received a conditional acceptance. "They basically told me, 'Ok, Kipke, we don't really want you, but we'll let you in – and you can stay as long as you get A's your first year,'" he says. "In retrospect it was probably insulting, but I jumped on it."
Within a year, he had his master's degree in bioengineering and was working in David Anderson's lab on early versions of the Michigan probe, an advanced microelectrode neural interface technology. "I got hooked on the technical aspects of using these probes to study the brain," he says. "Building the instruments, doing computer programming to get the signals, doing the surgeries in animals – I loved it."
He stayed on for his PhD, completing his thesis on neural processing in the auditory system. During this time, he gained invaluable experience using the Michigan probes to do multi-channel neural recording.
After an abbreviated post-doc, he was recruited as an assistant professor at Arizona State University, where he spent the next nine years. "I arrived in the department just as it was positioning itself to grow in BME," he says. "I set up my lab with the goal of being an engineer-minded auditory neurophysiologist." It turns out, however, that Kipke had a few things to learn about setting up a research program.
"It took me a while to break through the inertia and learn how to select good problems," he says. "At first, I was looking at, frankly, the minutia of how information is represented in low levels of the auditory system. I think my first grant application was entitled, 'Unit response properties in the dorsal cochlear nucleus of the anesthetized rat.'" After noting the bewildered expressions on colleagues' faces when he presented papers, he got the message.
"It finally occurred to me that to have an externally funded research project, you have to be working on problems people are interested in," he says. "It sounds obvious, but in my early research, it was difficult to extrapolate the findings to how people hear." He also realized that he had to capitalize on his own competitive advantage. "It turned out what I could bring to the table was using these advanced types of electrodes, including Michigan probes, to do multi-channel recordings in the brain combined with modeling approaches to study auditory processing," he says.
At that point the cutting edge of technology was chronic neural recording – implanting electrodes into the brain to record for long periods of time. Once he zeroed in on this, he was able to recruit a strong team of graduate students and win substantial funding from NSF and NIH. His lab took off.
After a few years, some family changes had him missing home in Michigan. At the same time, U-M had a faculty opening in BME. "I've always felt very strongly about the university," he says. "When people would ask me, 'Where do you want to work?' I'd say, 'U-M.' When they'd say, 'Where else do you want to work?' I'd say, 'U-M.' I did everything possible to make myself a strong candidate."
The short story is that Kipke was hired and brought with him a core group from Arizona. One of his first orders of business was co-founding a company called Neural Intervention Technologies (NIT), which was an outgrowth of work started at ASU. The company's primary product was an injectable gel to occlude neurovascular lesions. After getting FDA approval for a clinical study, NIT sold the company to W.L. Gore to commercialize the product.
In the meantime, he and his team accelerated their work investigating how the brain reacts to neural implants and developing progressively better implantable microelectrode technologies.
He describes the evolution of his research this way:
About 10 years ago, we were in Phase I. The basic question was: How do you make a good electrode? It centered on how you design and fabricate the electrode and how you package it so it can be implanted in the brain. Those problems were solved – by my group, my colleagues at U-M, and others. In Phase II, we looked at how to use the electrodes. This meant how you implant the electrodes into the brain so that they work – that is, they record brain activity reasonably well for a reasonable amount of time. This involved developing and refining both surgical and signal-analysis techniques. We also started looking at applications for this technology, the signature one being the brain-computer interface. This is classically a paralyzed person with an electrode in or on their motor cortex acquiring signals to move a computer cursor or a robotic hand. In 1999, it was the realm of science fiction, and it's now on 60 Minutes. We're now in Phase III, which is a deeper investigation of how these electrodes work at a cellular and molecular level. One problem with all implantable electrodes is that the brain mounts a reactive response to them. It's somewhat analogous to scar tissue. Over time, this reaction can be severe enough so that the electrodes don't record quality signals any more. So we're looking at these reactive responses at a cellular and molecular level and engineering solutions to minimize them.
That's what his group is working on now – advanced-architecture probes with features designed to minimize the body's reactive response. This has taken a variety of forms: developing smaller probes with less-obtrusive characteristics; even embedding stem cells into the probes to determine if those cells can emit growth factors or anti-inflammatory molecules to modulate the reactive response. He feels his group is closing in on the secrets to a permanent high-fidelity neural probe. This could be the ticket to using deep-brain stimulation to treat a variety of neurological diseases like Parkinson's, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Kipke is excited about his position on the cutting-edge of this technology. But he's equally excited about ensuring that such technologies make their way to the marketplace. That's why he co-founded NeuroNexus, a spinout of the U-M launched through in-licensing technologies from the university. "A lot of people are making probes at the academic level," he says. "But in order to make an impact, these technologies need to be translated and find use in high-scale neuroscience or clinical products. NeuroNexus fills this niche."
He credits U-M's Office of Technology Transfer with making the process of in-licensing and translation a seamless one. He also has high praise for the U-M environment itself for creating the synergies that lead to technological breakthroughs. "People always used to say about U-M that you can find an expert on campus for any question you have," he says. "When I was a student, I believed it. When I was being recruited as a faculty member, I was skeptical. But now I think it's true. It is remarkable how common it is to have a high-level question about some incredibly technical topic and within a phone call or two be talking to someone on campus who has the answer. It's what makes Michigan an elite institution and the ideal place for me to form collaborations to answer leading-edge questions."