Weldon School—Cyberonics Partnership, a Model Collaboration

Alumni at CYBX

Five Weldon School alums currently work at Cyberonics. Pictured are Omar Abdel-Latief (left), Eric Chow (center), and Seij Larsen (right); not pictured are Seth Wilks and Shriram Raghunathan.

“The faculty members work with these students for years and know their strengths,” said Pedro Irazoqui, Associate Head of Biomedical Engineering. “Faculty can vouch for a person, which is a big help to companies—it’s not as much of a risk hiring someone.”

Milton Morris, Senior Vice President of Research and Development at Cyberonics, said, “We gain access to great graduate students who join our company as interns and full time hires. Students coming from the Center for Implantable Devices, led by Dr. Irazoqui, are very knowledgeable about our technology and about epilepsy and are capable of being productive in our labs from day one.”


Epilepsy 411

Epilepsy remains a largely untold story in the public consciousness, despite its incidence:

  • Approximately 1 in 26 people in the U.S. will develop epilepsy at some point in their lifetime.*
  • More than 65 million people worldwide have epilepsy, including more than two million Americans.*
  • 150,000 new cases of epilepsy are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.*
  • 1 in 10 people have had or will have a seizure during their lifetime.*
  • Epilepsy is not a benign condition: it accounts for one percent of the global burden of disease due to disability and premature death, equivalent to lung cancer in men and breast cancer in women.**
  • November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month.

Approximately 30-40 percent of people with epilepsy are refractory, i.e. not responsive to drug treatments. Even for those who are responsive, the drugs often have significant negative side effects. The research on epilepsy conducted at the Weldon School and Cyberonics develops electrical stimulation-based neuromodulation therapies that are optimized and personalized to the treatment of each individual.


**http://www.medlink.com/medlinkcontent.asp and http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/news/Surgery-Soon-After-Failure-of-Drug-Treatment-For-Epilepsy-May-Lower-Risk-of-Seizures.cfm
When the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering partners with industry, plans are realized, ideas become manifest, and lives are changed. The following is a case study on the partnership between the Weldon School and Cyberonics, Inc., a medical device technology company. This fruitful collaboration leverages the strengths from both sides to advance research and technology, train and recruit students, and achieve life-changing clinical impact for patients and their families.

In the Beginning

Several years ago, Dan Moore, President and Chief Executive Officer of Cyberonics, read an article featuring the epilepsy research conducted by Pedro Irazoqui; Director of Purdue's Center for Implantable Devices, Associate Head for Research, Associate Professor in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, and Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and his team at Purdue. Moore happened to be headed to Purdue and called to set up a meeting to learn more.

It didn’t take long for the pair to realize that they shared a vision and passion for research that is both clinically relevant and commercially viable. Moreover, they each had a unique set of resources that could be combined to achieve success.

“I wanted the opportunity to design and engineer devices that would see use in the hospital and that would affect patient lives,” said Irazoqui, who has been interested in translational work since his early career at a start-up company.

From Moore’s perspective, a partnership with the Weldon School was attractive because “it would give us the opportunity to fund early stage ideas to a more mature stage and potentially translate that technology to commercial medical devices manufactured by Cyberonics. Further, research collaborations would allow us to get a closer look at students who were conducting research in our areas of interest, potential employees who understood our technology and would be capable of having an immediate impact after graduation.”

A partnership was forged that has led to greater triumphs than either side had expected—or could have achieved without the other.

Research and Technology Transfer

That initial meeting launched three sponsored research agreements spanning five years (to-date) between Cyberonics and the Weldon School related to neuromodulation treatment and technology for epilepsy.  “We work on better ways to power implantable pulse generators as well as improving the artificial intelligence used in implantable pulse generators to make our neuromodulation treatments more efficacious,” said Milton Morris, Senior Vice President of Research and Development at Cyberonics.

In general, the research has been geared toward novel methods of predicting, detecting, and stopping seizures, including:

  • Advanced closed-loop algorithms to improve efficacy and optimize therapeutic stimulation
  • Novel surgical techniques to insert and implant electrodes and other wireless medical devices
  • Technology to wirelessly communicate and power implantable devices
  • Unique methods and biocompatible materials to hermetically seal and package implants

The technologies developed through this collaboration are targeted to improve and enhance the capabilities of Cyberonics’s neuromodulation products, which are FDA-approved for the treatment of refractory epilepsy and treatment-resistant depression. Utilizing Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) Therapy, Cyberonics’s marketed products have been shown to significantly reduce, and sometimes eliminate, the occurrence of seizures in the target population.  

For both parties, access to the cutting-edge technology and creativity was an enormous bonus of the collaboration. “Nobody else was doing this anywhere,” said Irazoqui. “Things that we developed didn’t previously exist.” These efforts are now in various stages of translation into medical products and into clinical reality.

Creating a Legacy

Meanwhile, several Weldon students who were involved in this research have since graduated and joined Cyberonics to continue the important mission of extending and improving the lives of people with epilepsy. “Clearly the greatest benefit of our partnership is attracting Purdue talent to Cyberonics,” said Moore. “Recruiting the best engineers allows us to receive benefits for years as the Purdue graduates make substantial contributions to developing products that truly change the lives of patients.  Some of the Purdue grads go above and beyond the standard contribution to the business by becoming true leaders in our organization.”

One of those students is Eric Chow (PhD 2009), a Senior Research Scientist Lead at Cyberonics. “Beyond the excellent technical knowledge I learned at the Purdue EE/BME programs and Professor Irazoqui’s Center for Implantable Devices, another item that really stuck with me was a heightened sense of purpose,” said Chow. “At the Weldon School, I felt that people were there to make a difference. I felt like I was a part of something big, and at the end of the day, I got to make a difference to people’s lives.

“One of the main things that attracted me to Cyberonics was the similar sense of purpose and desire to help people. The first day I stepped in the door for my interview at Cyberonics, I knew that people loved being there, they loved their jobs, and they loved working together as a team towards a unified goal of helping those in need. I was part of a similar environment during my time at the Weldon School, and now I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of that again as a member of the Cyberonics team.”

That legacy continues to grow as Cyberonics has since expanded its partnership with the Weldon School to include internships for undergraduates.

“At a minimum, we hoped to make meaningful progress in areas of scientific discovery that would impact clinical products,” said Moore. “Those expectations and more have been met and we hope to continue our collaboration with Purdue.”

Imagine the Possibilities

The enduring, productive, and growing partnership between the Weldon School and Cyberonics has become a model for industry, but it’s only one example of how a successful industry partnership can work. The Weldon School is actively engaging the corporate community to exchange ideas and technology know-how, and we seek to develop custom partnerships that align with the vision of each industry partner. For more information, contact Brian Knoy, Director of Development at the Weldon School at bjknoy@purdue.edu or (765) 494-6241.