How Immunotherapy Can Become Effective Against Cancer

One of the biggest challenges in the research for new cancer treatments is the fact that many tumours are equipped with a molecular shield that allows them to repel attacks from the immune system. Since the 1980s, there have been cancer therapies which aimed at enhancing the body’s anti-cancer immune reaction, but it was only in 2012 that a research team at Johns Hopkins University, led by melanoma specialist Suzanne L. Topalian, gave hope to disable this shield, boosting patients’ immune systems and successfully tackling several types of cancer which in earlier attempts had not responded to other therapies. The corresponding medications, two of which were officially approved in 2014 to treat advanced melanoma, block a receptor called PD-1 (Programmed cell death 1) which would naturally dampen the body’s immune response. With more than 100 original research articles and reviews on the subject, Topalian is one of the leading researchers who over the last years helped to establish immunotherapy as an alternative treatment modality for cancer next to chemo- and radiotherapy. In her work as a physician-scientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, she continues to explore mechanisms to improve the efficacy of PD1-blocking drugs. At Falling Walls, Topalian reports on the latest developments and future outlooks in the research field that Science magazine named “Breakthrough of the Year 2013”.

Dr. Topalian is a physician-scientist credentialed in general surgery, with specialty training in surgical oncology and cancer immunology. After a 21-year tenure in the Surgery Branch of the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, she joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in June 2006 to lead the newly-established Melanoma Program in the Kimmel Cancer Center. She has published over 100 original research articles and reviews on cancer immunology, 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 immunomodulatory monoclonal antibodies. She was a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Melanoma Program Committee 2007-2008 and previously served as the MRA’s Chief Science Officer. She currently serves as a Board Member of the Society for the Immunotherapy of Cancer, as a member of the AACR Science and Regulatory Policy Taskforce, and as the Co-Chairperson for Immunology on the AACR Annual Meeting’s Scientific Program Committee.

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