Cancer-Fighting Cells Star in Alum's Movies

Alex Ritter ’09 might just be the next Steven Spielberg of the microbiology world.

Ritter studies a specialized part of our immune system called cytotoxic T cells. These tiny powerhouses find and destroy foreign cells – including cancer cells – that lurk in the body.

Much of his work has been dedicated to producing live-action movies that allow researchers and the general public to see how these cells – roughly one-tenth the width of a human hair – zap cancer cells.

Ritter’s combined expertise in microscopy technology and microbiology could lead to better understanding on how to fight interlopers like cancer cells and viruses. But the movies are also pieces of artistry – stunning views into a tiny, mysterious world.

“Because we can see (the T cells at work), we’re learning more about how these cells regulate their function,” Ritter says. “Once we understand this, we can use this information to control them better.”

Ritter learned his imaging skills at two well-respected labs as part of the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program. The program is an accelerated doctoral training program for outstanding students who want to do biomedical research. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 2015.

He also trained with Dr. Eric Betzig at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Along with his co-researchers, Betzig won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.

Ritter studied biology and chemistry at Concordia. He expected to go into the medical field or ecology. Encouraged by biology faculty, he participated in a summer research program at Carnegie Mellon University after his junior year.

“Once I sat behind the microscope there, I knew I’d found my calling for the rest of my life,” Ritter says. “I knew I had to pursue cellular and molecular biology.”

Ritter went on to receive a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, which is designed for college students intending to do research in science, mathematics or engineering. His doctoral work included collaborations between labs in Washington, D.C., and England.

“As important as it is to do good work, if you’re doing it in a vacuum you’re not going to get far,” he says. “You need to find common ground and find something to work on together.”

Ritter is now doing postdoctoral research at Genentech, a biotechnology corporation in San Francisco.