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Cool Videos: Cytotoxic T Cells on Patrol

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Cytotoxic T Cell Video screencapture

Wow! It’s one thing to know that the immune system has the power to destroy cancerous cells. But it’s quite another thing to see a cytotoxic T cell actually take out a cancer cell right before your eyes.

This amazing video was produced by Alex T. Ritter as part of Celldance 2014, an annual video series by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). To make this series happen in 2014, ASCB staff contacted cell biology labs known for their sophisticated imaging tools and techniques, asking them to submit proposals for videos. In return, ASCB provided some funding, post-production support from a professional videographer, and an original soundtrack from the up-and-coming Hollywood composer Ted Masur.

Ritter studies a roving, specialized component of our immune system called cytotoxic T cells. Their job is to seek out and destroy any foreign or detrimental cells—including cancer cells—that might be lurking in the body, a process that takes about 10 minutes from detection to death. These T cells literally convince a problem cell to commit suicide.

To make his microscopic blockbuster, Ritter called upon imaging skills he learned in two top-flight labs as part of the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program. He now works in the intramural laboratory of cell biologist Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. In England, he trained in the lab of cell biologist and immunologist Gillian Griffiths at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research. He says that both experiences were vital to making this video, as was his earlier training with Eric Betzig at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia. The latter credit should come as no surprise, given that Betzig won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.

To give you an idea of the cinematic challenges that confronted Ritter, consider this: Actor Brad Pitt stands 5 feet 11 inches, while a cytotoxic T cell measures only about 10 microns—roughly 1/10th the width of a human hair. To bring his tiny superstars into focus, Ritter used a compilation of images captured by various state-of-the-art forms of microscopy and also enlisted the editing help of his NIH colleague Jeremy Swan.

So never mind about the Sundance Film Festival—watch this space for more of the spectacular scientific flicks that Celldance has to offer!


Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz Lab, NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Ritter is in the back, wearing the blue coat).

Gillian Griffiths Lab, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, Cambridge University

Celldance, American Society for Cell Biology, Bethesda, MD