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June 2011 Issue

Keith Jones, PhD
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Focus on Science: Keith Jones

By Katie Pence
Published June 2011

Keith Jones, PhD, associate professor and vice chair of the department of pharmacology and cell biophysics, decided that he wanted to be a scientist at age 8. No one in his family had ever been to college and his father, though a high school graduate, had to work from age 12 to support the family after the death of his grandfather. Jones’ father worked for the railroad and would bring home books from damaged shipments, many of which were science books, and Jones pored over them, finding them fascinating. "[My father] fed the fire over the years, and I took AP biology in high school and never looked back,” he says. 

Jones received his doctorate degree in biological sciences and genetics from the University of Kentucky in1987 and underwent postdoctoral training at UCLA and then at the University of Cincinnati. His research is in the area of cardioprotection and innate immune system signaling and gene expression programming underlying cardiovascular pathophysiology.

How long have you been with UC?
"After a postdoctoral period here in the 1990s, I started my independently funded research career at the University of Louisville. I returned to UC as a faculty member in 2000.”

What is your current research focus?
"The focus of my research program is to understand the molecular and biochemical basis of cell death in the heart. Recently in 2009, we discovered that there are pathways stimulated by the activation of pain receptors in a particular region of the abdominal skin. These pathways can be activated after the onset of a heart attack and are able to mediate powerful protection against cell death. Most interestingly, this effect can be stimulated by an electrical signal or by application of topical capsaicin, the same biochemical that causes the hot sensation when you eat a pepper. We are pursuing the molecular mechanisms here; on the other hand, we are working to try to derive a practical treatment to reduce the effect of heart attack.”

How soon do you expect your findings to impact patient care?
"Because capsaicin is FDA-approved for topical use, and its initiation of cardioprotection does not require delivery to the blood, we have moved on translating this discovery. We have made some progress, and we have begun translational trials as well as two small clinical trials in the division of cardiovascular diseases. So, with some luck and navigating some bends in the road, I would hope that we may see application of this technology in the next three to five years.”

What do you like to do in your spare time?
"Honestly, most of my time is split between science and my family. I have a 9-year-old daughter who is probably my favorite ‘spare-time’ activity. I also enjoy reading, biking, swimming, and I hope to get back into one of my old favorites with my daughter, camping.”

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