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

Accelerate innovative research like this and help save cancer patient lives.

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The results are in, and you have cancer. Though no appointment will be stress-free, the first appointment with your oncologist is often the most difficult. It’s scary, you’re unfamiliar with the jargon, and you have so many questions and worries racing through your mind that it is hard to focus. Because of this, it is vital to prepare for your first appointment – and knowing what to ask is essential.  Write Down Questions as They Come Up From the moment you have your diagnosis, keep a notebook handy where you can document every question that comes into your mind. There will be a lot, and it will be impossible to remember all of them without recording them. Writing questions as they come helps keep your thoughts in order and allows you to be your own advocate. Even with the best care team in the world, there is no better advocate for you than you. Basic Questions to Ask Your Oncologist Not sure what to ask? The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) has your back. Get the conversation rolling with questions like these: 1. Where did my cancer originate? Has it spread? This will likely be the first thing your care team discusses, but it is essential that you fully understand your diagnosis.  2. Is there a genetic link to this type of cancer? Should my family members be tested? Many cancers are genetic, and this question can potentially save lives.  3. What treatment options are available? Ask your care team what they recommend and why. There may be numerous options, and your doctor should be able to explain the pros and cons of each one.  4. What happens if the treatment approach doesn’t work? Knowing this will help your peace of mind, but it also allows you to assess if your care team is the right fit. Some teams may be more risk-averse, and others may be more willing to try new therapies. Speak to your care team about how/when they consider a treatment unsuccessful and what the next steps would be. 5. How will you help me manage side effects? Review the potential side effects and what support you can receive. Speaking about side effects early on will allow your care plan to be proactive rather than reactive.  6. What will my treatment cost? Cancer treatments can be expensive, and you will want to prepare for this. Your care team can also discuss what treatments your insurance may cover and what options it will not.  7. What can I do to preserve my fertility? If you want biological children in the future, this is vital to ask. Addressing it after treatment begins can be too late. 8. What impact will treatment have on my lifestyle? It may be unavoidable, but preparing for any impact on your lifestyle can make the transition easier.  9. Where can I get more information or support? Your care team deals with diagnoses day in and day out. They are a wealth of information and can point you toward resources, groups, and more. NFCR may also be able to help via our Patient Assistance […]