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Meet the 'sculpting scientist' helping people visualize the destruction of cancer

Williston, N.D., native and Concordia College graduate Alex Ritter's videos and glass sculptures of real-life T-cells killing cancer cells give hope in the fight.

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Alex Ritter.
Contributed / Vince Tarry
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WILLISTON, N.D. — In the early 1990s, when Alex Ritter was a kindergartner here, his teacher asked the class to draw their dream job.

“I drew a picture of a scientist, but I didn't really even know what a scientist was,” he said.

Now, all Ritter needs to do is look in the mirror. What he sees is that a scientist can be someone who gives hope to cancer patients through colorful, dynamic microscopic imagery that would make Steven Spielberg sit up and take notice. Ritter, in a way, is the executive producer and director of real-life molecular battles that look suited for any big-budget thriller.

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A progression of a killer T-cell (pink) attacking a cancer cell (green). Upper left, the T-cell identifies the cancer cell. Upper right, the T-cell shoots toxins (orange) into the cancer cell. Lower left, the cancer cell starts to retract. Lower right, the cancer cell is destroyed.
Screengrabs from Alex Ritter at Genentech video

Ritter, a graduate of Moorhead's Concordia College, is now a postdoctoral researcher at Genentech, a biotechnology company in San Francisco. The work he and his colleagues are doing on how T-cells within the body attack cancer cells and how cancer cells fight back just made the cover of the acclaimed Science magazine.

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Alex Ritter, a Williston, N.D., native and Concordia College graduate, had his work on killer T-cells and cancer published on the cover of Science magazine.
Contributed / Science Magazine

He said he was “absolutely elated” to be recognized in the publication.

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“I see this whole thing as just an opportunity to communicate this beautiful biology to people, and I'm super excited by the new strategies people all over the globe are using to develop ways to get the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer,” he says.

From bugs to T-cells

Ritter says as a kid growing up in Williston, his interest in science started by exploring the outdoors and “romping around creeks” to collect amphibians, reptiles and bugs. His love for ecology took him to study at Concordia College, where faculty encouraged him to work on summer projects with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

His early college years were spent learning things like the mating rituals of prairie chickens or how the American badger is an indicator of prairie health. But by his junior year and further research opportunities, biochemistry started piquing his interest — in particular just how cells work.

As he set out to earn his Ph.D. in cell biology and immunology, the idea of exactly what he would study came even more into focus as he combined work being done at the University of Cambridge about the biology happening inside of killer T-cells with work being done at the National Institutes of Health about advanced microscope technology for studying cells.

Alex Ritter
Alex Ritter first became interested in ecology as a child growing up in North Dakota, but he developed an interest in biochemistry and cells while in college.
Contributed / Genentech

'Assassins of the body'

To understand Ritter’s work, it’s important to understand exactly what a T-cell is.

“Killer T-cells are kind of like the army guys, assassins in the body, which are meant to patrol your tissues and search for these healthy cells, which get infected with viruses, and the only way to shut down these viral factories is to destroy them,” he said.

Ritter said oftentimes the only reason that cancers are able to reproduce in the body is that they evade the immune system. So, these same killer T-cells that are able to destroy healthy cells that can be infected with the virus also are tasked with identifying when healthy cells go haywire and start to reproduce. When our own healthy cells start to get mutations and reproduce uncontrollably, tumors or cancers form.

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“Usually, the T-cells can recognize when these cells kind of go rogue and start to reproduce. But, you know, when a cancer grows, it has essentially discovered a way to evade the immune system to evade these killer T-cells,” Ritter said.

As part of his doctoral research, he looked at strategies to develop live cell imaging techniques so people could see and learn from the sometimes violent interaction between T-cells and cancer cells.

In a screengrab from one of his videos, an orange T-cell can be seen gobbling up the blue cancer cell like a fiery Pac-Man on steroids.

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In this image taken from one of the videos, an orange T-cell is seen destroying the blue cancer cell.
Alex Ritter at Genentech

“This is not a computer animation. This is a real T-cell engaging a real cancer cell and it looks animated because the way that we do the imaging is using fluorescence microscopy. So, we're expressing fluorescent proteins of two different colors in these cells, and then we use different wavelengths of laser light to illuminate them,” Ritter said.

Alex Ritter, PhD, narrates the destruction of the cancer cells

“The whole idea of this cancer immunotherapy is to get these immune systems to recognize the tumor that's growing in a person and to leverage the power of the immune system to destroy a tumor. And this video essentially demonstrates that if we can get the T-cells to recognize the tumor, you know, this killing strategy is pretty potent,” he said.

What could this mean?

The high-resolution imaging of the live cells studied by Ritter and the Genentech team helps researchers to see just how, when and why cancer cells are fighting back, which could perhaps lead to more effective treatment.

But Ritter also hopes that the dramatic imagery of killer T-cells clobbering cancer cells, now being shared in Science magazine and on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, will help cancer patients on a more personal level.

“If these videos can be a way to get people to visualize cancer being destroyed in their own bodies, or the bodies of their loved ones, I think that's a win," he said.

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Scientist and sculptor?

However, Ritter is even taking the idea outside his lab. In his spare time, he creates glass sculptures of the cells — another way, a tangible way, far from the video screen, for cancer patients to visualize and internalize the destruction of cancer within their bodies.

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Scientist Alex Ritter started working with glass five years ago making cups, bowls and vases, but he's now working to recreate the T cells and cancer cells, which he helps will further help cancer patients visualize the destruction of cancer within their body. He is developing a website to show his work but for now it can be found on Instagram.
Contributed / Alex Ritter

"Some people may connect to the concept through a physical object like a sculpture of glass that is corporeal and has weight. Maybe that will help in some small way to make the concept of an immune cell killing their cancer more real."

He started working with glass five years ago making cups and bowls, but he saw another outlet for his life's work — a way to share with the world the amazing things he sees under the microscope every day.

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This glass sculpture shows a T-cell engaged with a cluster of colon cancer cells. Ritter says most of his glasswork takes between two and three hours to make.
Contributed / Alex Ritter

"The glasswork is a way to get the images in my head out into the real world," he said. "Cells are underappreciated only for the reason that they are invisible to the naked eye. I hope with the videos I capture in the microscope and with this glass that people can connect to their cells and see the beauty and infinite complexity and mystery within."

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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