January 25, 2023
Octavio Ramilo, MD, FPIDS, is Chair of the Department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, TN. He earned his MD at Facultad de Medicina, Universidad Complutense in Madrid, Spain, where he also completed his pediatric residency. Beginning in 1987, Dr. Ramilo came to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for his fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases followed by postdoctoral research in immunology, and he joined the faculty there in 1993. Dr. Ramilo worked in Dallas for the next 20 years before moving on to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus in 2009, and just began his current position at St. Jude’s this month.
Why Pediatric ID? There were no pediatric ID fellowships in Spain. Residency is four years, and you could do whatever you like in that fourth year, obviously I chose pediatric infectious diseases. When you are an intern in pediatrics, infectious diseases are the most common frequent problem you encounter. I was fascinated by two things: one, the variety of the clinical presentations and two, the ability of the laboratory to help establishing a very precise diagnosis for a specific patient, which in turn led to specific therapy and good outcomes. This ability to see a diversity of patients and the unique strength of the lab to make a precise diagnosis convinced me two months into my residency that I wanted to be peds ID.
I also had wonderful mentors, beginning in Madrid where we had a wonderful infectious diseases unit and clinicians, but we also went every day to meet with our microbiology colleagues and discuss the most relevant cases. Next, I went to the U.S. to further my training in Dallas. UT Southwestern is one of the oldest peds ID training programs, going back to the ‘60s. Two of my mentors, George McCracken and John Nelson were among the people who started the specialty and ran one of the oldest fellowships in peds ID. By the time I left Dallas, there were fellows from 27 different countries. That’s a huge impact. They helped organize the pediatric infectious diseases societies, as they trained European colleagues, people in Japan, the Philippines, South America. They are among the founders of our specialty and PIDS, we had amazing leaders, and it is difficult not to feel impacted by them. They were amazing clinicians, amazing clinical investigators and wonderful colleagues and then friends. I was very lucky. I got into the right place.
Where have you taken you ID focus? After 20 years I never thought I would leave Dallas, but I was offered the position at Nationwide Children’s in Columbus, where I worked with wonderful colleagues and together, we developed a big program. And then this opportunity came – totally unexpected – to come to St. Jude. PIDS and St. Jude have worked very closely together for years, it’s a big tradition of pediatric ID here. Drs. Walter Hughes and Elaine Tuomanen made major contributions to our field and had a major impact in peds ID. St. Jude also has strong research programs on infections in compromised hosts, HIV and influenza. Since they are leaders in influenza research and we are interested in RSV infections, we can synergize our efforts.
One aspect from our work in RSV (as I have worked closely with one of my colleagues, Dr. Mejias, for many years) is we endeavor to learn how the infant’s immune system responds to infection. That has opened a new area to understanding early life immunity and how exposure to vaccines and pathogens shape the immune system. We need to learn more about early life, it is at this time when infections cause tremendous morbidity and mortality among children. Early life immunity and respiratory infections are our major research focus.
What is a recent development or achievement in your career? Something we like to do is apply the latest technologies in the context of our work. When I was an intern, I was always impressed by how the lab can help us in diagnosis. I think we need to do the same thing. We use some of the latest genomic analysis, that others use in cancer or in immunology research, in the clinical setting. For example, we have done a lot of work on transcriptomics in the context of children with infections. How can we bring the application of transcriptomics and other system analysis tools to do clinical research?
The ability to bring these technologies to the clinical setting is something I am particularly proud of doing. The number one cause of death of children in the world is infection. We need to use all technologies available to us to see if we can understand that better. It is important that we have enough people dedicated to do this work. We need to explain what we do better, to bring more people into PIDS and to our area of interest. We need to be broad in looking at the world to bring talent into our areas to address health of children. It is exciting and you see what happens in children when you commit to peds ID.
What do you enjoy most about being a PIDS member; what keeps you renewing your membership? My colleagues. How they think, to learn from them and to interact with them. In so many instances, you start as colleagues and become friends. We also share the same feeling among pediatric ID colleagues in the U.S. as you do elsewhere in the world. There is something that is part of all of us that makes you feel close to them. Maybe it has to do with our working with children and infections and we face similar problems.
I’ve always loved PIDS, since I was junior faculty. Meeting in person again at IDWeek after two years of the pandemic was fantastic. It’s always a great feeling being part of PIDS, who we are, and being part of that community all over the country. Being a pediatric ID person is a dream job. There is nothing in pediatrics like infectious diseases. We can make such a huge difference. I feel proud to be part of this.