Focus on new faculty: Ludwig hijacks the nervous system

// Biomedical Engineering

Tags: Faculty, Grainger Institute for Engineering, research

Photo of Kip Ludwig
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Instead of taking a daily pill, a patient relies on a tiny implanted electrode to stimulate a nerve and cue delivery of biomolecules already produced by the body. The drug arrives right when and where it’s needed and in the precise quantity the patient needs.

That’s part of Kip Ludwig’s vision for the future of medicine. The University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of biomedical engineering works in the world of neural engineering—“hijacking” the nervous system, as he puts it—with a particular focus on small, injectable devices. To Ludwig, they represent the next generation of therapies within the realm of neuromodulation, which broadly refers to stimulating nerves to treat disease.

“It’s the ultimate in personalized and precision medicine,” says Ludwig, who’s also the neuroengineering lead at the Grainger Institute for Engineering at UW-Madison. “Precision because we can deliver a drug exactly when we want, where we want, how we want, but personalized because these things are smart and have sensors and they can sense and maintain your exact levels throughout the day.”

Ludwig joined the university in summer 2018 and brings a unique blend of academic, industry and federal agency experience to the College of Engineering.

He’s spent the past three years as associate director of Mayo Neural Engineering Laboratories at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Before that, he directed the neural engineering programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he also led the majority of NIH device programs tied to the White House BRAIN Initiative and created a program to fund research aimed at better understanding the nervous system’s relationship with organs.

Ludwig also worked as a senior research scientist at CVRx, a Minnesota-based medical device startup. There, he designed CVRx’s next-generation device, the BAROSTIM NEO, an implanted electrode that slows down the heart and dilates blood vessels to relieve hypertension in patients who have been diagnosed with heart failure. The device, which electrically stimulates the baroreceptors (think: sensors) on the carotid arteries in the neck, is in clinical trials in the United States and is being sold in more than 20 countries.

In fall 2018, Ludwig will serve as an adviser for the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s capstone design course. He’ll also develop a course for the spring 2019 semester on translating medical devices—getting them approved and to patients—in a global, regulated market by drawing on his own experiences.

He says he was attracted to UW-Madison by the sheer breadth of expertise on campus that could intersect with his work—something he knew from evaluating institutions during his time at NIH.

“You need materials scientists, you need neuroscientists, you need clinicians, you need experts in imaging and automated targeting and sensors,” says Ludwig, adding that the coming decades will bring an onslaught of data pertaining to the nervous system. “Going forward, I wanted to be at a place that had the capabilities in big data and data analytics to take advantage of all of this biomolecular, neurochemical and neurophysiological data that my work requires, and Wisconsin was just so beautifully set up.”

Of course, it also helps that Vilas Distinguished Professor Justin Williams is chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Ludwig first met Williams at the University of Michigan, where the former was a graduate student and the latter a postdoctoral fellow working on brain-machine interfaces.

Now, the two are co-principal investigators on a nearly $10 million, six-institution grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to use electrodes to stimulate nerves in the head and neck and put patients into an optimal learning state. The system they’re devising could be used for patients who are trying to re-learn tasks or information after suffering brain damage, or to accelerate learning in healthy individuals, such as members of the military.

Ludwig and Williams are also exploring potential applications for neuromodulation in treating neurodegenerative diseases.

“Justin and I both come from this brain-machine interface background, but in reality we treat broken wires,” Ludwig says. “And there are broken wires everywhere in the body, and many if not most diseases and disorders have something to do with a breakdown in the nervous system—or at least if you sent new signal through those wires, you could treat it.”

Author: Tom Ziemer