Employee Testimonial - Joe Rocco, M.D., Assistant Clinical Investigator, HIV Pathogenesis Section, Division of Intramural Research

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Joe Rocco, M.D.

Credit: NIAID

How would you summarize what you currently do at NIAID?

I am a new assistant clinical investigator working in Irini Sereti’s lab in the Laboratory of Immunoregulation, and I study cytokine storm syndromes, specifically hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), which is a severe hyperinflammatory syndrome with a high mortality resulting from an over-activation of the immune system. In this role, I take care of a variety of patients with this condition and also perform laboratory experiments to better understand the risk factors and pathogenesis of HLH to identify novel and targeted immune therapies to treat this disease. 

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

It can be extremely variable spending full days in the hospital or clinic caring for sick patients. I usually see patients at least a couple of days per week, whereas, on other days, I will be primarily in our immunology lab performing different flow cytometry or sequencing experiments. I also spend a large amount of time performing data analysis, writing papers, and teaching students, residents, and fellows. 

How long have you been at NIAID and what was your career path to arrive here?

I have been at NIAID for almost five years, and before arriving, I did medical school and internal medicine residency at the University of Pittsburgh. I was always interested in immunology and infectious diseases (ID). What brought me to NIH/NIAID for fellowship is the strong emphasis on both ID and immunology, as well as the unmatched patient care and clinical-translational research. 

How would you describe the culture at NIAID?

The NIAID culture is fantastic and extremely collaborative and supportive. There are so many experts across every field of science and medicine; it provides so many opportunities to improve our understanding of disease and improve the lives of people suffering from infectious and immunologic diseases.

Are there any special or unique projects that you are working on?

Since starting as an assistant clinical investigator, my primary project has been to start one of the largest and most comprehensive clinical trials in people with secondary hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. This is a severe inflammatory syndrome with a high mortality, and it remains critically understudied. The pathogenesis and optimal treatment for people with secondary HLH remain completely unknown. We are working on starting a natural history clinical trial titled HERCULES (HLH Evaluation and Research of Clinical, immUnoLogic and transcriptomE Study). This trial will prospectively recruit, treat, and longitudinally follow individuals with secondary HLH while performing comprehensive immunologic and genetic analyses to determine the risk factors and pathogenesis of this syndrome with the goal of identifying new targeted immune therapies to improve survival of those with this condition.

What do you like about working at NIAID?

My favorite part is working with people from the clinical staff in and around the hospitals/clinics, as well as all of those within and across the scientific laboratories. Additionally, I really enjoy the incredible opportunity to meet and help provide care to individuals with complex and rare medical conditions that may have been neglected or fallen through the cracks of the medical system due to their complexity. 

What are your future career goals?

My long-term plan is to expand on my current work on secondary HLH with the ultimate goal of better characterizing the mechanisms of disease to improve the lives of anyone suffering from HLH.  

Do you have any advice to offer others who might be considering working at NIAID?

Yes, come work with us. There is no better place to learn how to care for patients with infectious and immunologic diseases while also performing state-of-the-art research to help improve the lives of these patients in a supportive and collaborative environment.

Reference to Relevant Program Content

NIAID Infectious Diseases Fellowship

Learn more about Joseph M. Rocco, M.D.

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