By age 8, Keith Jones, PhD, professor and vice chair of the department of pharmacology and cell biophysics, knew that he wanted to be a scientist when he grew up.
No one in his family had ever been to college, and his father, who only had a high school degree, had to work from age 12 to support the family after Jones’ grandfather died. He worked for the railroad and brought home books from damaged shipments, many of which were science books, which is where Jones’ fascination began.
Jones pored over them, fueling the fire for his love of science, and from that point forward he never looked back.
He immersed himself in AP science classes in high school and then received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Louisville; Jones then went to the University of Kentucky to receive his doctorate degree in biological sciences and genetics in 1987. Jones underwent postdoctoral training at UCLA and the University of Cincinnati. He then started his independently funded research career at the University of Louisville, returning to UC as a faculty member in 2000.
His enterprising nature—even seen as a youngster flipping through the pages of a biology book—has earned Jones a 2012 Emerging Entrepreneurial Achievement Award for his decades of research, all of which has brought technology from the lab to the clinic and beyond.
Jones’ research focuses on the molecular basis of cardiac cell death, including ways to alter the transcription factors within the cell to block activation of mechanisms that could kill it during heart attack or heart failure. This work could be used to create cellular therapies for patients and is currently being marketed for research use.
Most recently, Jones and his team discovered that pathways, stimulated by activation of pain receptors in a region of the abdominal skin, are able to mediate strong protection against cell death during heart attack. This discovery has led to clinical trials and could help patients within the next several years.
"We discovered in mouse models that the stimulation of skin sensory nerves in a specific location elicits protection against heart attack via a response of the nervous system which was published in the journal Circulation in 2009,” he says, noting that the stimulation was done in a number of ways including the use of capsaicin, the main ingredient in chili peppers, and even using acupuncture.
Jones teamed up with Neal Weintraub, MD, chair of the division of cardiovascular diseases, to find ways to test this in human populations.
"This technology has led to two potential commercial and clinical applications: the capsaicin cardiopatch (CardioPatch) and an electrical stimulation patch (CardioStim), as well as the formation of a startup company, CardioCeption, LLC, by myself, Dr. Weintraub and Clint Dederick,” Jones says. "Through CardioCeption, we received a $430,000 grant from the Global Cardiovascular Initiative, and have worked to validate and define the safety and efficacy of these cardioprotective mechanisms in support of commercialization and clinical use.”
Jones says that additional financial support allowed two small clinical trials to be conducted in healthy humans, to test whether capsaicin application is protective against forearm ischemia and whether the same treatment is effective therapy for angina, or chest pain during exercise. The trials are ongoing.
His team’s initial discovery also led to further animal studies, in which independent labs replicated the discoveries.
"This replication of scientific results is extremely important, it validates our basic discovery, helps our initial research to gain attention in the field and provides new models and collaborators to push research and development ahead,” Jones says.
In addition to expanding his research, Jones continues to partner with and mentor other researchers and faculty members throughout the Academic Health Center, using his findings to broaden the impact of other studies and to create usable therapies.
He is working with Jack Rubinstein, MD, in the division of cardiovascular diseases, on research targeting a specific calcium channel in the heart, found to boost cardiac function, with hopes of creating new therapies for heart failure. Additional collaborations are ongoing with Jonathan Bernstein, MD, in the division of immunology, allergy and rheumatology, for studies looking at how capsaicin can help patients with sinus inflammation and non-allergic rhinitis. Jones says this project "hits home” because his wife suffers from the condition.
Jones’ success as a collaborator and as an entrepreneur is reflected in his constant efforts to fund his ideas—from such federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, to state agencies, to private investment—as well as his drive to file patents to get the discoveries into commercial and clinical application.
"In the long run, what we learn may be licensed to a startup or existing company to support new indications for capsaicin or other drugs,” he says. "I believe that the research done in the lab is not finished until it’s helping another researcher or is being used in a clinic to help patients.”