NYU Dentistry Researchers Receive Additional Funding from the Department of Defense to Continue Research on Chronic Pain

Nigel Bunnett, PhD, and Brian Schmidt, DDS, MD, PhD, have received an Expansion Award from the Department of Defense to continue their research investigating opioid alternatives to treat chronic pain. The three-year, $2.2 million grant began September 1, 2022 (award numbers W81XWH2210238 and W81XWH2210239).

Chronic pain is a significant public health problem, and current therapies—particularly opioids—carry dangerous risks and side effects, or do not effectively treat pain. The NYU Pain Research Center is working to better understand the mechanisms of chronic pain and find safer and more effective alternatives to opioids.

Military personnel and veterans experience disproportionate rates of chronic pain, including pain related to post-traumatic headache and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The Department of Defense began funding Dr. Bunnett’s and Dr. Schmidt’s research in 2018 with a $2.4 million grant to study how receptors inside nerve cells generate chronic pain.

Their research revealed new understandings of colon pain and headache, as well as how nanoparticles can be used to encapsulate drugs and deliver them into targeted parts of nerve cells. 

“The use of nanoparticles to precisely deliver drugs has therapeutic potential for effectively treating chronic pain using non-addictive drugs,” said Bunnett, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Pathobiology and assistant dean for research development at NYU Dentistry.

The Expansion Award will enable the researchers to build on this work and test the use of nanoparticles carrying non-opioid pain drugs in providing long-lasting pain relief for headache and IBD. The encapsulated drugs—including FDA-approved therapies—will be chosen based on their ability to block the signaling of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) in compartments inside of cells called endosomes. Nathalie Pinkerton, PhD, of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering of NYU Tandon School of Engineering will provide expertise for the development of nanoparticles.

If successful, their research in animal models, human nerve cells, and human colon tissue will pave the way for clinical trials.

“This research has the potential to define a new class of drugs which could be used to alleviate pain in millions of service personnel, veterans, and civilians,” said Schmidt, director of the NYU Dentistry Translational Research Center and the NYU Oral Cancer Center, and senior vice dean for research development and academic affairs at NYU Dentistry.