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Inside Track: An epigenetics pioneer
Peter Jones’ early research leads to change in standard of care for patients with myelodysplastic syndrome.
Peter Jones’ entire scientific career was defined by one unexpected discovery.
He found the drug he was studying changed mouse stem cells to muscle cells, leading his team to link a regulatory mechanism called DNA methylation with the way the instructions in genes are carried out. This, in turn, determines the fate of the cell, whether it will become a muscle cell or a skin cell, for example.
That discovery led him to a career of pioneering the field of epigenetics, the study of changes to DNA that turn genes “on” or “off.” Epigenetic alterations can play a major role in cancer onset and progression.
Cancer cells often hide from the immune system, and a piece of what he studies involves how certain epigenetic drugs can “unmask” the cancer cells and allow the immune system to destroy them.
The work he has done over the past 40 years researching a drug’s effects has changed the standard of care for myelodysplastic syndrome, a pre-leukemic condition for which there was no solid treatment.
Now, when patients are diagnosed with that condition, they receive the treatment Jones, in collaboration with the chemists who created the drug and those who have executed its clinical trials, have helped perfect.
Changing the standard of care is the “ultimate success” for a scientist, he said.
As chief scientific officer of Van Andel Research Institute, Jones is working to make the organization a globally recognized leader in epigenetics and Parkinson’s disease research.
He is contributing to work he hopes has an impact on standards of treatment for bladder cancer, a form of lung cancer, colon cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Jones has published more than 300 scientific papers and received several honors, including the Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Cancer Institute.
He recently was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and will receive an honorary doctorate from South Africa’s Stellenbosch University this month.
Jones is past president of the American Association for Cancer Research, a fellow of the AACR Academy and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
He and his colleague, Dr. Stephen Baylin, shared the Kirk A. Landon Award for Basic Cancer Research from the AACR in 2009 and the Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society in 2011.
Jones always knew he wanted to be a scientist.
He was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and raised in Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, where he would regularly visit the American library as a kid and read books about science.
He had a chemistry lab in his parents’ garage at age 13. Not a toy chemistry set — the “proper stuff,” including chemicals like hydrochloric acid. He and a friend once sold a pair of shoes on the street to get money for chemicals.
“I was absolutely fascinated by it, and it never left me to this day,” Jones said.
After graduating high school in 1964, he attended the University College of Rhodesia, the first of 30 cousins to attend college.
That’s where he met two mentors, Arthur Hawtrey and Joseph Taderera, who he credits to solidifying his choice to pursue work in biochemistry and biology, as well as his interest in translational research, applying knowledge from lab-based discoveries to patient care.
He said Hawtrey had an “infectious curiosity,” particularly about cancer research, and Taderera was one of the very few black scientists in the world and was involved in using cells grown in culture dishes for cancer research.
“They taught me to think big,” Jones said. “They taught me to think of publishing in the best journals, doing work which would be recognized internationally. And to be enthusiastic and to be curious.
“Curiosity is what it’s all about.”
Both his mentors had medical training in the United States, which gave them a valuable worldview he found especially important.
University College of Rhodesia was 500 miles from the nearest university. During that time, Rhodesia was declaring independence from Great Britain, so it was surrounded by United Nations sanctions; there were blockades up the coast, and passports were worthless.
“We were very isolated not only geographically but politically from the entire world,” Jones said. “So, it was very important to have people who thought outside of that box.”
After graduating in 1969, he attended the University of London for a doctorate degree.
The first year of his studies, not a single experiment worked, he said. It wasn’t until toward the end of his studies that his team grew hamster cells and applied chemicals to change them into cancer cells.
“That was a big breakthrough,” he said.
His doctoral thesis was about chemical carcinogenesis, how chemicals in the environment cause cancer.
Jones was first published in the European Journal of Cancer, a feeling he called “absolute ecstasy,” which led to an opportunity to work in the U.S.
“If you want to succeed in science, you almost certainly have to come to this country,” he said, adding it is not true for everyone, but to this day, the U.S. is the best place for the field.
In 1972, he began a postdoctoral fellowship at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
After a brief time as the chief research officer at Tygerberg Hospital’s medical school in South Africa, he began teaching pediatrics and biochemistry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine in 1977, where he stayed for 37 years.
1978 was when he made the discovery that would define the rest of his career.
He was holder of the Mark A., J. Ruth, and Stillman F. Sawyer Chair in Cancer Research in 2012, and he was director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center from 1993-2011.
Jones moved from Los Angeles to Grand Rapids just over four years ago to pursue the opportunity of taking the Van Andel Institute “to the next level.”
“I also felt a sense of responsibility as a scientist to take this amazing gift from the Van Andel family and turn it into something special,” he said.
Shortly after, he established the institute’s Center for Epigenetics.
Jones admits he was not sure how coming to Grand Rapids would work out, at first.
“I came here very, very skeptically,” he said, worried that it would be difficult to recruit the best people to an area with such few medical researchers.
Now, he would say Grand Rapids has some of the “world’s best scientists,” and he is working on getting more.
With the development of the Medical Mile and recent establishment of the Michigan State University Research Center, Grand Rapids has a total 60 researchers, which is 60 more than it had before the establishment of the institute in 1996.
“We can say that we’ve gone from 0 to 60 in 20 years,” Jones said. “Suddenly, it’s not just an isolated area. There’s a lot of scientific horsepower right here.”
And Jones said he wants to keep that momentum going.
“I keep on telling people that we’ve got to start thinking big here in the city,” he said.
In the next five or 10 years, he would like to double the number of researchers in the area. Science research brings high-end jobs and highly accomplished people to the community, he said.
Eventually, Jones wants Grand Rapids to be a hub for science and translational medicine, a place with wide-reaching connections involved in many collaborations, where scientists from all over the world can visit to work.
“I think Grand Rapids should be able to move in the direction of becoming a research powerhouse,” he said.
To get there, he said he believes there should be a stronger focus on the field in the area and recognition of its importance.
“Science is the way to the future,” Jones said.