NYU Pain Research Center: Signaling Hope
A Conversation with Dr. Brian Schmidt
On January 1, 2022, NYU Dentistry opened the NYU Pain Research Center. The new Center will assemble a cadre of investigators with interest and experience in the neurobiology of pain, provide mentorship, recruit and train the next generation of basic science and clinical pain investigators, and facilitate clinical trials of new non-opioid pain therapies.
The Center has been in the planning stage for several years by Brian Schmidt, DDS, MD, PhD, and Nigel Bunnett, PhD. Dr. Schmidt is the senior vice dean for research development and academic affairs and the director of the NYU Oral Cancer Center and the NYU Dentistry Translational Research Center and a professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery. Dr. Bunnett is professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Pathobiology and assistant dean for research development. Global Health Nexus spoke with Dr. Schmidt recently about the NYU Pain Research Center’s project to provide alternatives to opioids to treat chronic pain.
Why is research into chronic pain so important?
Dr. Schmidt: 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 abuse 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 impossible to overstate.
What makes this the right time to establish a pain research center at NYU Dentistry?
Dr. Schmidt: Pain research falls squarely within the mission of the College of Dentistry. Our faculty and students serve a large population of patients who endure acute and/or chronic pain, and there is a persuasive case to be made for founding a pain center within NYU Dentistry. Our school already employs numerous investigators with expertise in basic science pain research as well as clinical pain research, and our facilities can easily accommodate additional pain studies. Eight investigators within four departments currently undertake federally funded pain research related to oral cancer pain, colitis pain, headache, and itch.
Are there plans to recruit additional pain researchers?
Dr. Schmidt: Definitely. We have been given the green light to hire about three new pain research faculty each year for the next several years. Ultimately, about 15 faculty members will be associated with the Center. The recruitment of additional pain researchers with a focus on facilitating clinical trials of new non-opioid pain therapies will set us apart from other dental schools. More federally funded research will be undertaken, collaborative opportunities for investigators will be expanded, and we will cement our reputation as a preeminent research institution.
How is the Center being funded?
Dr. Schmidt: The Center launched with more than $45 million in funding for research activities. This includes $8 million in funding for research activities generated by our newly appointed director of the Center, Dr. Rajesh Khanna from National Institutes of Health grants, foundations and private venture capital (see related story here), as well as more than $37 million in NIH and Department of Defense grants awarded to other researchers within the Center. In addition, the Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda has committed to some seed funding.
It is our intention to submit an NIH Program Project Grant application to support the core facilities that will underpin the Center. The formal structure and explicit purpose of the Center could help researchers garner federal resources to address the vexatious problem of pain. Indeed, the former NIH Director Francis S. Collins recently launched the HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative to accelerate new approaches to pain treatment to combat the opioid crisis. The NYU Pain Research Center aligns our research efforts more closely with federally established priorities and our structured approach will improve our competitiveness with related federal grant opportunities.
Where will the research be performed?
Dr. Schmidt: The majority of the clinical research associated with the Pain Research Center will be performed within the NYU Dentistry Translational Research Center, formerly the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research. It will cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries through collaboration with investigators from NYU Langone Health, NYU College of Arts and Science, NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and NYU Meyers College of Nursing, as well as extramural investigators.
What is your long-term vision for the NYU Pain Research Center?
Dr. Schmidt: NYU Dentistry is already a leader in clinical research; the Translational Research Center is the most tangible product of institutional support for clinical and translational research at any dental school in the country. The NYU Pain Research Center will play to the strengths of our clinical research facilities and expertise and will maximize the utility of resources already in play. It will be an incubator where basic scientists, clinician scientists, and clinicians learn from each other and collaborate. Basic scientists will have the unique opportunity to interact directly with patients and gain firsthand knowledge of the clinical challenges in treating pain. Ultimately, patients will benefit from the knowledge gleaned from work facilitated by the Center.