Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Summer/Fall 2022 issue of Forward magazine, which is published twice a year by Fox Chase Cancer Center
By Marian Dennis
When Jose Russo began his career in cancer research at the National University of Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina, he sparked more than just a career in medicine. While there, he met a woman whose passion for science matched his own. Irma Russo (then Alvarez) was also studying medicine when their paths crossed, and they began not only a life of love and companionship, but a decades-long journey in scientific discovery. Over 30 of those years were spent at Fox Chase Cancer Center.
Jose and Irma were married in 1971 and moved to the United States to pursue research as part of a fellowship for the Rockefeller Foundation, a research organization aimed at solving global challenges in medicine and public health. Shortly after, they moved on to the Michigan Cancer Foundation, now the Karmanos Cancer Institute, in Detroit.
The couple’s work at this center would become the basis of their lifelong mission of researching breast cancer, its causes, and potential means of prevention. As a team, they were pioneers in understanding how pregnancy mediates breast cancer prevention.
Their work with the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin in preventing breast cancer led to a clinical trial that is now underway internationally. “I’m glad that the trials are moving along. That was something I know my dad really wanted to be able to see through, so it’s really great to see,” said Patricia Russo, Jose and Irma’s daughter, who also pursued a career in medicine.
A Special Bond
“They really were perfect for each other and had this really special bond. I remember we would be sitting at the dinner table and they would be talking about some experiment, which as a kid I didn’t understand. But that was just another typical dinner.”
In 1991, Jose and Irma moved their breast cancer research to Fox Chase Cancer Center. Jose served as chair of the Department of Pathology and director of the Breast Cancer Research Laboratory, where Irma was director of the Molecular Endocrinology section.
“Jose and Irma were a quiet couple who were always together,” said Joseph Testa, chief of Genomic Medicine at Fox Chase and a friend of the two. “They were an incredible fit and had a truly wonderful life together. They were in it as a team. How many people get to share their science with another person?”
Their humble nature and dedication to their field extended through their careers to touch the lives of the over 100 cancer researchers they mentored. Patricia described their lab environment as a second home, recalling her time working with her parents there.
A Family Atmosphere
“They really fostered a family atmosphere in the lab. They both felt it was very important to have the patience to teach people and guide them through. … Those researchers are still like a second family,” she said.
During her tenure at Fox Chase, Irma remained devoted to the mission of understanding the cellular and molecular basis of breast cancer until her death in 2013. In her honor, the Breast Cancer Research Laboratory at Fox Chase was named the Irma H. Russo, MD, Breast Cancer Research Laboratory.
Jose continued working until he was physically unable to do so, a week before his death in September 2021. At that time, he was a professor and director of the research laboratory that bore his wife’s name.