Dr. Topalian received her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and went on to receive her medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine in 1979. She then went on to complete her residency in general surgery at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, after which she held two fellowships — the first in Pediatric Surgery Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (1982-1983), and the second in Surgical Oncology at the National Cancer Institute, NIH in Bethesda, Maryland (1985-1989). In 2006, after a 21-year tenure in the Surgery Branch of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Topalian joined the Johns Hopkins faculty to lead the Melanoma Program in the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.
In the laboratory and in the clinic, Dr. Topalian serves as a physician-scientist whose research interests focus on cancer immunology and immunotherapy. She has published over 100 original research articles and reviews in this field and is internationally recognized for this work. Dr. Topalian’s basic studies of human anti-tumor immune responses have provided a foundation for the translational development of immunotherapies for melanoma and other cancers, including cancer vaccines, adoptive T cell transfer, and immune-modulating monoclonal antibodies. Her early work established that cytolytic “killer” T lymphocytes in melanoma patients could specifically recognize tumor cells from the same patient. Later studies confirmed the existence of “shared” melanoma antigens (proteins) among tumors from different patients, paving the way for the clinical development of melanoma vaccines. Seminal investigations into the role of CD4+ T “helper” cells in human anti-tumor immune responses revealed the existence of tumor-specific CD4+ T cells in patients with melanoma and other cancers, and biochemical and molecular methods were devised for identifying the recognized tumor-associated proteins.
As the Director of the Melanoma Program, Dr. Topalian’s current work focuses on modulating immune checkpoints such as PD-1 in cancer therapy, and discovering biomarkers predicting clinical outcomes following treatment. She continues to work on devising optimal melanoma vaccines, based on biochemical and structural analyses, with the goal of exploring combination treatment regimens of vaccines with PD-1 blocking drugs. These pioneering efforts have opened new avenues of scientific interest and clinical investigation in cancer immunology, and have helped to establish immunotherapy as a treatment modality for cancer.
Dr. Topalian was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2017.