NUNM alumnus receives prestigious HEAL K12 for chronic pain research

Researcher Dr. Ryan Wexler continues study of back pain and mindfulness-based interventions in clinical development program.

National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) alumnus Dr. Ryan Wexler received the HEAL National K12 Clinical Pain Career Development Award (HEAL K12) to continue research first conducted while studying at NUNM. 

Dr. Wexler, a former postdoctoral research fellow at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), officially joined the prestigious program in June.

He is now working at NUNM to further explore chronic pain management outside of pharmacological treatment, with a focus on mindfulness meditation as a lifestyle intervention. 

The competitive HEAL K12 program is awarded every year to help clinicians and scientists focus on training and conducting clinical pain research.

Participating scholars are provided three mentors to excel in their work: a senior pain research mentor of national stature, a mentor with lived pain experience, and a primary home-institution mentor.

“It feels surreal to receive this award,” Dr. Wexler said, acknowledging that research can be a difficult line of work that often relies on funding. “It’s a major relief to be able to move this project forward.” 

Dr. Wexler earned a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine and Master of Science in Integrative Medical Research (now Master of Science in Clinical Research) from NUNM in 2023. His master’s thesis highlighted results from a clinical trial on patients with sciatica—or lumbosacral radiculopathy.  

In this study, patients were found to have reduced intensity in daily back pain with Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), an integrative treatment strategy using principles of mindfulness-based training and cognitive-behavioral therapy to improve wellbeing.   

The HEAL K12 program is an extension of this earlier work, allowing for the continued study of mindfulness-based interventions for low back pain and lumbosacral radiculopathy (or radiating back pain). 

Run through The Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, HEAL K12 is one of many grants for career development funded by the National Institutes of Health. Awardee training is split between UM-Ann Arbor and the scholar’s home-institution.

Grants such as these are also oftentimes the first opportunity a junior scientist has to receive their own funding for independent research, Dr. Wexler said.  

“Needless to say, it feels like a huge stepping stone to be at this stage as a researcher,” he said, adding that it’s overwhelmingly exciting to be a young scientist working to uncover new knowledge to improve healthcare. 

“Receiving this award comes on the heels of many other major accomplishments for naturopathic clinician scientists in recent years,” he said, “and I expect there will be more to come from new curious and motivated students entering the field.” 

In 2023, Dr. Wexler was accepted into a postdoctoral fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Wellness and Preventive Medicine, before moving his work to OHSU in March. 

by Ashley Villarreal, Marketing Content Specialist