Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Baltimore, MD
Professor, Surgery and Oncology
Bloomberg-Kimmel Professor of Cancer Immunotherapy
Director, Melanoma Program, Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins
Director, Bloomberg Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy

Research Projects

Dr. Suzanne Topalian is a physician-scientist whose studies of anti-tumor immunity have been foundational in developing cancer immunotherapy. Among her accomplishments are her studies and clinical trials to block PD-1 – one of the body’s natural brakes or ‘checkpoints’ on the immune system. The therapy reversed local tumor immune suppression in several cancer types including melanoma, kidney, colon, and lung cancer. Her research catalyzed the cancer community to develop the current FDA-approval of 6 different check-point inhibitors (ICIs) in 17 types of cancer.

Previous groundbreaking studies led by Dr. Topalian’s team and Dr. Paul Nghiem at the University of Washington, demonstrated that 50% of patients with the rare skin cancer – Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) – have long-lasting benefit from immunotherapy. The others do not respond. The basis for this different outcome from the therapy, as with most cancers, is unknown.

Approximately 80% of MCCs are caused by a polyomavirus and 20% of MCCs are caused by sunlight-induced genetic mutations. Each type of MCC is ‘seen’ in different ways by the immune system.

To understand more on the immune response to each type of MCC, NFCR is supporting Dr. Topalian and her expert team in sunlight-induced MCC and Dr. Nghiem’s team – experts in virus-induced MCC.

This powerful collaboration is using cutting-edge approaches on both types of tumors from MCC patients to study every gene in the tumor infiltrating T cells or TILs – the cancer fighting immune cells. Their complimentary expertise will allow the direct comparison of T cell responses to the two types of MCC- for the first time in history.

Findings from this research will allow Dr. Topalian’s team to combine existing ICI therapy and emerging therapies to help patients overcome MCC and other virus-driven cancers. Moreover, these insights will guide the development of cancer immunotherapy for other virus-induced cancers such as Head and Neck cancer and a type of stomach cancer.


Suzanne L. Topalian, M.D., is a Professor of Surgery and Oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She received her medical and scientific training at Tufts University School of Medicine (1979), completed general surgery residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (1985), and completed a fellowship in surgical oncology at the National Cancer Institute or NCI (1989). She was a senior scientist at the NCI until 2006 and then joined the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in 2006 as the inaugural director of its Melanoma Program.

She has published over 160 original research articles and reviews in cancer immunotherapy. She is one of the most highly cited researchers in the biomedical field. Dr. Topalian’s work is widely recognized: she was named one of Nature’s 10 in 2014, and received the Karnofsky Award from ASCO in 2015, the Taubman Prize in 2016, the NCI’s Rosalind E. Franklin Award in 2018, the American Academy of Dermatology’s Gruber Memorial Cancer Research Award
in 2020, and the Award for Distinguished Research in the Biomedical Sciences from the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2021, for landmark discoveries in cancer immunotherapy. Dr. Topalian was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2017.

Our approach emphasizes a collaborative, team environment to accelerate new breakthroughs.


Paul Nghiem, M.D., Ph.D University of Washington

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