Suzanne L. Topalian, M.D.
Professor, Surgery and Oncology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Director, Melanoma Program, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center
Dr. Topalian is a physician-scientist whose studies of human antitumor immunity have provided a foundation for the translational development of cancer vaccines, adoptive T cell transfer, and immunomodulatory monoclonal antibodies. Dr. Topalian received her medical degree from the Tufts University School of Medicine and completed a general surgery residency at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia in 1985. She was a research fellow in Pediatric Surgery at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and subsequently in Surgical Oncology at the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health. After 17 years as a Senior Investigator in the Surgery Branch, NCI, Dr. Topalian joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2006 to become the inaugural director of the Melanoma Program in the Kimmel Cancer Center.
Dr. Topalian has published over 100 original research articles and numerous reviews on cancer immunology and immunotherapy. She was involved in the earliest studies of cytokine therapy for patients with advanced cancers. Her seminal work on tumor infiltrating lymphocytes led to the first trials of adoptive T cell transfer. She is credited with demonstrating, on a basic level, the importance of T helper cells in anticancer immunity, influencing the design of cancer vaccines and other therapies. She was among the first to clone tumor proteins targeted by human immune cells, and she worked collaboratively to define interactions between T cells and their targets on a structural level.
Dr. Topalian’s experience in human cancer immunology and immunotherapy positioned her to take advantage of the emerging basic immunology discoveries that tumors could co-opt natural mechanisms of immune tolerance to escape destruction by a patient’s immune system. Her current research focuses on modulating immune checkpoints such as PD-1 in cancer therapy, and on discovering biomarkers predicting clinical outcomes. Her leadership of the clinical and correlative scientific efforts in this area demonstrated that anti-PD-1 can effectively reverse tumor immune suppression to mediate the regression of advanced treatment-refractory cancers of multiple types– melanoma, kidney and lung cancer. The impact of this work is witnessed by the recent entry into the field of several pharmaceutical companies developing antibodies or recombinant molecules targeting the PD-1 pathway.
In summary, Dr. Topalian’s work with anti-PD-1 is the culmination of a long and productive career in cancer immunotherapy and translational medicine. Her work has generated innumerable new areas of related translational research. It has brought immunotherapy into the fold as an established cancer therapy modality, and has major ramifications for the treatment landscape for cancer patients.