Dr. Jose Russo: A lifelong commitment to cancer research
With a career that has spanned nearly 60 years, Dr. Jose Russo, an Argentinian immigrant, has focused much of his time, energy and dedication toward finding effective methods for breast cancer prevention.
At the end of his fourth-grade year, Jose Russo remembers when his teacher gave him a special assignment. He was to find out as much as he could about early 20th century writer Luis Russo.
To complete his task, Russo went to the San Martin Public Library, the only public library in Mendoza, Argentina. He eventually located an encyclopedia with the writer’s name in it, took all the notes he could, then handed the report to his teacher the following day.
Despite never finding out exactly why his teacher gave him that assignment, that initial visit to the library opened up an entirely new world for Russo, he said.
“It was in that library that I learned about the existence of the word ‘cancer,’” Russo recalled. “And the beginning of my quest.”
Russo would often spend countless hours alone in the public library, searching through old science books and broadening his knowledge.
“From there, I decided that I wanted to be a researcher, and that my best option to be a researcher is to be a physician-scientist and to go to medical school,” he said.
More than half a century later, Dr. Russo’s interests have not changed and he has become a distinguished professional in the world of medicine. Today, Russo, now 76, is Director of the Fox Chase Breast Cancer Research Lab in Philadelphia, working toward the ultimate goal of preventing breast cancer once and for all.
On Oct. 10, Russo will be recognized by AL DÍA along with four other honorees with a Hispanic Heritage Award at the third annual Hispanic Heritage Awards Luncheon at the Union League of Philadelphia. The event is held in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.
The ceremony is designed to honor leaders of Hispanic origin for their exceptional contributions in different professions in the Philadelphia region. Russo will be honored in the field of Health. The other honorees are:
• Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University-Camden (Education)
• Peter Gonzales, President & CEO, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians (Non-Profit)
• L. Felipe Restrepo, Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (Public Service).
• Alba Martinez, Principal, the Vanguard Group (Business).
Russo was born in Rivadavia, Argentina, a small town east of the city of Mendoza, in 1942. He came to the United States during the early 1970s, where he spent 19 years in Detroit, Michigan, before settling in Philadelphia in 1991.
The doctor’s parents, Teresa Pagano and Felipe Russo, were of Italian descent. His grandparents, Maria Belfiore and Jose Russo, lived in Catania, Sicily, before immigrating to Córdoba, Argentina, around the beginning of the 20th century, along with many other Italian families during that time period.
During his last year of elementary school, Russo had already decided he would attend the Agustin Alvarez National College (Colegio Nacional Agustin Alvarez) in Mendoza.
Many of Russo’s elders advised him not to attend the school because of concerns that his chances of finding useful employment with a bachelor’s degree in science would be limited. Despite these worries, he decided to take his chances.
Russo was well aware that his desire to go to study medicine would not be an easy dream to make a reality. He explained that there was an exhaustive selection process to get into the school he wanted to attend, to which only 80 students out of more than 400 applicants were accepted each year. The exam to enter medical school included both written and oral tests in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and medical English.
It was at the National College that Russo learned the basics he needed to study medicine, and after making the cut, he attended medical school at the University National of Cuyo (Universidad Nacional de Cuyo), also in Mendoza, where he studied Experimental Pathology.
Russo first met the woman who would become his wife, Irma, in 1961, during his second year of medical school. However, it wasn’t until they crossed each other’s paths a couple more times that they began talking in 1968.
Both had been working at the Institute for Histology and Human Development back then, sharing the same laboratory space. After nearly a year of daily walks together, Russo said each learned a lot about the other’s largely opposing traits and qualities — from her caring, loving ways to his often aggressive, energy-filled nature; her patience to his impatience; her tolerance to his brashness. It was those differences that created such an attractive force between them.
The two were married in February 1969 and later went on to relocate to the U.S.
“We came to this country in 1971, and we had opportunity to start really putting all our energy in cancer research and breast cancer research,” Russo said.
Together, the two of them founded the Breast Cancer Research Laboratory (BCRL), authored more than 200 papers and obtained more than $30 million in grants for their efforts towards breast cancer research, Russo said.
“I think I have been very fortunate, being among the 10 percent of the people that have been funded for doing my research,” he said. He called it the only “good internal parameter” that shows that your research ideas are appealing enough to your peers and other researchers to receive the money needed to conduct research projects.
After several years as a member of the Michigan Cancer Foundation’s Department of Pathology, Russo was promoted to chairman, in addition to his job as a clinical associate professor of pathology at Wayne State University Medical School.
The laboratory was moved to Philadelphia in 1991, and Russo became a chairman of the Department of Pathology in the Medical Division at Fox Chase Cancer Center. In 1994, with the help of expanding personnel and grant support, the BCRL was established as a separate entity from the Pathology Department at Fox Chase.
As a testament to her many contributions to her field, after Irma passed away in 2013, the BCRL was renamed the “Irma H. Russo, MD, Breast Cancer Research Laboratory” in her memory.
About one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. That’s about 30,000 to 40,000 women a year who are diagnosed, Russo said.
That startling number of women affected by this disease annually is why Russo’s work is so crucial.
“We are working in order to try to develop some preventive strategies,” Russo said.
Two of the most common gene mutations that cause the development of breast cancer are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, Russo explained. Women who carry the BRCA1 mutation have about an 80 percent chance of developing breast cancer, whereas carriers of the BRCA2 mutations have about a 60 percent chance.
Russo and his team are currently in the process of a clinical trial in collaboration with the medical school at Ghent University in Belgium. The trial includes using a natural hormone in young women (between the ages of 19 and 29) who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations but are still free of breast cancer.
“The study that we are doing in Europe will give us a significant idea if we are in the right track or not,” Russo said.
He added that if they are successful, the natural hormone will also be tested in women without the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations. The results could become useful in the development of a new strategy for breast cancer prevention.
At 76 years old, Russo’s work has encompassed nearly 60 years, throughout which he has shown a deep commitment to the betterment of human existence.
“I dedicated my life to science to try to do something for humanity,” Russo said.
That has always been Russo’s mindset, from the very moment he first learned the word “cancer” as a young boy sitting in the public library. The doctor has maintained it through his numerous roles in cancer research and beyond, including his training of more than 50 Ph.D. and M.D. investigators in cancer research over the years.
“The only thing that makes my day is the urgency to accomplish my legacy in this world,” Russo said. “That is to provide the strategy for preventing breast cancer.”
The hope is for that strategy towards the prevention of breast cancer to come into fruition sooner rather than later.
Russo is set to publish his newest book, “Memoirs of a Cancer Researcher” in February 2019.