Dr. Rajesh Khanna Named Director of the NYU Pain Research Center

Rajesh Khanna, PhD, an internationally known expert in pain research, has been named director of the NYU Pain Research Center, effective January 1, 2022. Prior to joining NYU, Dr. Khanna was the associate director of the University of Arizona Health Sciences Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, and a member of the BIO5 Institute.

The aim of the new NYU Pain Research Center, located at NYU College of Dentistry, is to facilitate the development of innovative pain research initiatives, with a focus on solutions to the national opioid crisis. As director, Dr. Khanna will establish the basic science and the clinical research directives for the center; recruit a cadre of collaborative, world-class investigators with expertise in the neurobiology of pain; recruit and train the next generation of basic and translational pain scientists; develop collaborations with corporations and pharmaceutical companies; and identify federal and philanthropic sources of funding to conduct and promote research on alternatives to opioids for chronic pain treatment.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 100 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 20% of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them and 8-12% of people using an opioid for chronic pain develop an opioid use disorder. Opioid misuse leads to lost productivity, reduced quality of life, and rising health care costs. Since 2000, opioids have caused half a million deaths in the United States. The toll of these pointless deaths on friends, families, and communities is hard to overstate.

Dr. Khanna’s scientific investigations have generated new insight into the biologic mechanisms of pain, accelerated the pace of discovery in pain research, and laid the ground work for the development of a new category of non-opioid pain reliever. “Drug discovery is mired with challenges,” said Dr. Khanna. “Our team looked at a fundamental mechanism of pain, came up with a way to differentiate it from those before us, and found a compound that has potential as a new non-opioid treatment for pain,” he added. That compound, which they designed and dubbed 194, successfully and safely altered NaV1.7—a sodium ion channel that has been long linked to the sensation of pain through genetic studies of people with rare pain disorders.

Dr. Khanna and his team observed a synergistic effect when 194 was combined with morphine and gabapentin. This is a promising sign that 194 could be used in a dose-reduction strategy for painkillers that have negative side effects, including opioids, while maintaining high levels of pain relief.

Dr. Khanna’s research is supported by over $8M in NIH, foundation, and private venture funding. In addition to his scientific contributions, he has been awarded five patents for the treatment of pain. He also cofounded the company, Regulonix, LLC, and is the chief scientific officer of this early-stage biotechnology company.

In addition to his appointment as director, Dr. Khanna has been appointed a professor in the Department of Molecular Pathobiology at NYU Dentistry. Dr. Khanna will work closely with Drs. Brian Schmidt and Nigel Bunnett, the conceptual architects of the NYU Pain Research Center. Brian Schmidt, DDS, MD, PhD, is director of the NYU Oral Cancer Center and the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research. He is also NYU Dentistry’s vice dean for research and faculty affairs and a professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery. Nigel Bunnett, PhD, is professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Pathobiology.

Dr. Khanna earned a PhD in physiology from the University of Toronto and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Physiology and Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has held faculty positions at the Toronto Western Research Institute, Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis, and the University of Arizona. He has authored more than 175 peer reviewed publications, directed the dissertations of five PhD candidates, and trained 16 postdoctoral fellows.

“Rajesh Khanna is an entrepreneur and a visionary,” said Charles N. Bertolami, DDS, DMedSc, the Herman Robert Fox Dean of NYU Dentistry. “With his extraordinary strengths as a scientist, leader, and mentor and his capacity to partner with industry, he will forge an exciting future for the NYU Pain Research Center.