Patricia Devitt Risse, whose innovative work in cancer treatment has helped bring to market a wide range of new cancer drugs that save lives, will be inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

Soon after Patricia Devitt Risse finished her doctorate in pharmacy at Rutgers in 1993, she landed a job where she oversaw worldwide clinical trials for the first gene-based therapy for cancer to reach the market. In women who have HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer, a gene mutation allows a protein to promote the growth of deadly cancer cells. The drug Risse PHARM’85, GSNB’93 worked on was designed to block the growth signals and prevent the cancer cells from proliferating. Its trials were successful, and the drug gained FDA approval. 

Years later, a close friend of Risse was diagnosed with that form of breast cancer and was treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and the drug Risse had helped to develop. “I am thrilled to say that she’s now 10-plus years out from her original diagnosis and doing great,” says Risse. “That is truly job satisfaction at its finest.”

Previously, women diagnosed with the HER2-positive genetic abnormality had a life expectancy of under five years. 

Risse, who has devoted much of her 35-year career to testing oncology drugs, including founding an award-winning successful company, also is known as an early proponent of precision oncology—the idea that physicians can customize a cancer treatment based on the individual patient’s genetic profile. She will be inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni on April 25. 


It was a high school class in an entirely different field—economics—that sparked her interest in drug research. “We had to pretend-pick stocks,” says Risse, who grew up near Buffalo, New York. Knowing little about finance, she opened the medicine cabinet at home, saw an aspirin bottle with the name “Eli Lilly” on it, and made that company one of her stock picks. “When I did the research on that stock, that’s when I became intrigued by the idea of making medicines that help treat people’s illnesses.”

Risse’s parents, both of whom had taught chemistry, encouraged her interest. As she searched for universities with undergraduate pharmacy programs, Rutgers quickly became her top choice because of its location near—and relationships with—major pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Pfizer. 

Patricia Devitt Risse with Rutgers pharmacy students.

She thrived at Rutgers. “Although it’s big, the pharmacy school isn’t,” she says. “I was lucky to have the best of both worlds—I benefited from everything a large university could offer, but I had very small class sizes. We really got to know our fellow students and our professors, and they got to know us.” She loved living in Ford Hall in 1980, her first year, and fondly remembers attending the last-ever Rutgers-Princeton football game that same year. (Rutgers won, 44-13, in the old Rutgers Stadium.) 

As an out-of-state student, she paid twice the regular tuition but received financial help from a work-study job in the library and, later, a scholarship from the Dean’s Fund. “It helped me finish my undergraduate degree without undue financial burden,” she says. “I will be forever grateful for that.

“I vowed that if I were ever in a position to give back, I would try to provide that same support to other students,” says Risse, who has been a generous supporter of Rutgers students, endowing a scholarship and a fellowship. 

Launching a Successful Career

After graduating from the College of Pharmacy—now called the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy—she worked at pharmacy jobs in hospital and retail settings, then was hired as a clinical research assistant for a contract research organization (CRO). CROs plan and conduct drug trials for pharmaceutical companies, as well as for government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, and for charitable organizations, including the Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. 

“My job was to visit the physicians who were conducting the research in their practices across the country, look at the patient data, and make sure that everything they reported about the drug trial was accurate and was done according to FDA standards,” Risse says.

Patricia Devitt Risse PHARM’85, GSNB’93

“I really loved that job,” she adds. “But I felt I could do more if I knew more.” Specifically, she wanted a deeper understanding of the biological and physiological processes involved in health and disease, and how medicines can play a role in altering those processes. She decided to return to Rutgers for her Doctor of Pharmacy degree. The Pharm.D. program was only in its second year, but choosing Rutgers was easy, she says, based on her undergraduate experience and the quality of the graduate faculty. 

One graduate course in particular would provide a crucial foundation for the company she would eventually create. “I especially loved pharmacokinetics,” she says. “How does the drug move through the body? How is it absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and eliminated?” At graduation in 1993 she received one of the top student awards from the pharmacy school—the Alvin Felmeister Award  in Pharmacokinetics. 

After finishing her doctorate, Risse spent more than seven years at Covance, a large CRO in Princeton, where she worked on the breast-cancer drug and oversaw a number of other late-stage cancer trials. But over time she became interested in focusing her efforts earlier in the drug-development process—specifically on first-in-human trials, where a medicine is tested in humans for the first time. That’s where her expertise in pharmacokinetics really came into play. “We have to confirm how a drug is best given to patients, at what dose, at what schedule, and whether it actually gets to the target of impact safely,” she says.

Becoming an Entrepreneur

She decided to launch her own company—a niche CRO called ACT Oncology, focused solely on first-in-human cancer drugs. The company thrived: It grew steadily for 16 years with no need for outside funding, and virtually no voluntary turnover for more than 10 years. In 2014, NJBIZ named Risse one of its top 50 Women in Business, and in 2016, ACT Oncology was honored with an Enterprise Award from the Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies.

Because of ACT Oncology’s focus on personalized cancer treatment—using an individual’s genes, tumor antigens, or other unique biomarkers to identify the type of treatment most likely to work—it often worked closely with another CRO, Precision for Medicine, which specialized in biomarker testing. In 2016, ACT Oncology became part of Precision for Medicine. Risse stayed on as president of the Clinical Solutions Division as the company expanded throughout Europe and into the Asian-Pacific Region. 

Risse retired in 2021 but remains active with her alma mater. She has been the keynote speaker at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy convocation and serves on the board of the Rutgers University Foundation. 

She also has kept the promise she made to herself when she was an undergraduate student in need of financial support: She has created the Patricia Risse Endowed Fellowship and the Patricia Risse Endowed EOF Fellowship for students in the pharmacy school.

“I’m highly committed to supporting scholarships to benefit students who have great abilities and interests but need a little help to get there, like I did,” she says. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to help them pursue their passions.”

Risse is one of five new inductees who will be formally enshrined in the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni in a ceremony starting at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 25, at the Stone House at Stirling Ridge in Warren, New Jersey. For more information, visit the Hall of Distinguished Alumni page.

Nominator’s Remarks

Rutgers Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy Dean Joseph A. Barone
Dean Joseph A. Barone

“As a leader in the field of oncology drug development, Pat has had a tremendous impact on scores of cancer patients. In doing so, she represents the best of an Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy graduate. Dedicated, passionate, and always looking for ways to give back, Pat’s commitment to our school has never wavered. We are so grateful to her for her generosity and kindness, and I’m thrilled that she has been chosen for this honor.”  —Joseph A. Barone, Dean and Distinguished Professor, Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy

WE ARE YOU is an ongoing series of stories about the people who embody Rutgers University’s unwavering commitment to academic excellence, building community, and the common good.


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