Alex Ritter ’09 is on a mission with a microscope. As a postdoctoral research scientist at the biomedical company Genentech, the Williston, North Dakota, native has been working to capture the best possible images of the fight against cancer, right down to the individual cell.
That work was recently featured as the cover story for Science magazine, a leading scientific news outlet.
“It was really humbling, and I was elated,” Ritter said. “It was really great because oftentimes their graphical artists will play with the image to make it flashy, but they just took the image we generated and slapped it on the cover with their text.”
A super-resolution microscope shows a killer T cell (magenta) engaging with a large ovarian cancer cell (cyan). Red waves entering the cancer cell indicate the moment that the T cell secretes toxic proteins which will destroy the target.
Ritter and his partners had already done the work to make a flashy scene. They have been injecting a fluorescent protein into cancer cells and cytotoxic T Cells, the body’s natural disease killers, and using specialized microscopes to get a live and almost animated view of T cells attacking cancer cells.
He has seen cancer cells be destroyed but has also witnessed them repairing the damage. That might sound disheartening, but in the realm of research, being able to share that data helps other scientists develop more effective immunotherapies.
Another goal is to show these dynamic visuals to cancer patients undergoing treatment.
“I really believe in Western medicine and the biology behind these things, but I also believe in the power of a positive mindset,” Ritter said. “Being able to visualize these things happening might lift spirits and give people a positive attitude going into their therapy if they can see that these immune cells kill cancer all the time.”
A killer T cell engages a lymphoma cancer cell (blue). Dynamic membrane protrusions and high activity within the T cell demonstrate that it has recognized a target.
Adjusting his Focus
When Ritter first started at Concordia, he assumed he was going to become a medical doctor or a dentist but soon discovered those paths didn’t click with him. He then studied biology and ecology. After suggesting research, his professors aided Ritter’s journey by creating a course to help with fundamental laboratory skills and encouraging him to pursue prestigious research internships.
Chemistry professor Dr. Mark Jensen was Ritter’s advisor and saw his potential early on.
“He was very bright but also had a maturity other people his age didn’t have yet,” Jensen said. “He's not just a scientist. He's very well-rounded, very well-spoken, and I think a great product of a liberal arts environment who's now reaching the upper echelons of the scientific world.”
Jensen was not surprised to see Ritter’s work featured by Science and added that research published in the magazine is chosen because of its value to all of science in general, not just one’s field.
“To get published in Science is a big deal because it means that it's the best work out there with the most wide-reaching impact,” Jensen said.
Ritter says it is partially luck that he found his calling but also credits his success to his time experimenting with other careers while at Concordia.
“I found what really drives me and what I’m truly passionate about,” Ritter said. “It's very important that you take this opportunity to experiment and explore.”
Ritter was recently profiled by Forum Communications. The article includes Ritter’s side passion for glassblowing, recreating cells as works of art.