Honorees: Suzanne L. Topalian, M.D.

Distinguished Physician-Scientist and Groundbreaking Researcher

Dr. Suzanne L. Topalian is the Bloomberg-Kimmel Professor of Cancer Immunotherapy and is a Professor of Surgery and Oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is also the director of the Melanoma Program in the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, and an associate director of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Topalian grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, and her father Malcolm Topalian was a founder of the St. Thomas Armenian Church in Tenafly. She received her undergraduate degree in English literature from Wellesley College, and her medical degree from the Tufts University School of Medicine. She then went on to complete a residency in general surgery at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, during which she conducted a fellowship in Pediatric Surgery Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She completed a second fellowship in Surgical Oncology at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Subsequently, she joined the faculty of the NIH as a Senior Investigator in the Surgery Branch of the National Cancer Institute. In 2006, after a 21-year tenure at the NCI, Dr. Topalian transitioned to Johns Hopkins to become the inaugural director of the Melanoma Program in the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Dr. Topalian is a physician-scientist whose studies of anti-tumor immunity – that is, how the immune system reacts to cancer – have been foundational in developing immune-based cancer therapies. She has conducted seminal work in developing lymphocyte transfer therapies (“adoptive T cell transfer”) and experimental cancer vaccines.

However, she is best known for leading the clinical development and biomarker discovery for PD-1 pathway blockade, a new immune-based treatment approach with durable activity and survival benefit in several types of advanced cancers. To date, these efforts have supported FDA approvals for 6 new drugs and diagnostics in 16 different cancers.

Dr. Topalian’s work is widely recognized: she was named one of “Nature’s 10” in 2014, and received the Karnofsky Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2015, the Taubman Prize in 2016, and the NCI’s Rosalind E. Franklin Award in 2018, for landmark discoveries in cancer immunotherapy. Dr. Topalian was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2017. Her work has opened new avenues of scientific investigation and has established immunotherapy as a pillar of oncology.