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Cool Videos: Cytotoxic T Cells on Patrol

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

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



  • Anthony CHiu says:

    What is being tagged with Red and Green? I am curious about the flash of red that we see.

  • dreierjo says:

    Great visualization!!!

  • Al says:

    Amazing. I have the same question as prior poster.

  • Nancy says:

    If you listen to the audio, it explains the flash of red. That’s when the cancer cell is dying. My question is how do the cytotoxic t-cells distinguish between cancerous cells and normal cells?

  • Jeff says:

    Hello. How were these cells identified as “cancer cells?” Since cells differentiate, what tissue do these belong to, and what are they doing circulating in the blood stream?

  • Kan C. says:

    Amazing cell biology 😉

  • cimdy says:

    Very well put together and easy to understand. It was interesting to see how the Cytotoxic T Cells work on getting rid of the cancer.
    I had Breast Cancer and carry the BRCA gene. So very fascinating to me.
    Good Job!

  • rainrhyme says:


  • John R. says:

    Not only is this an interesting scientific narrative. It demonstrates that what is seen under a microscope can present an interesting visual narrative, in which “formal” elements such as lines, colors, shapes, and textures are arranged with principles such as rhythm, repetition, contrast and balance. Formalism is the theory of art that stresses meaning in a work of art is derived from appreciation of a work’s formal properties, which result from the interplay of the formal elements and principles. Many modernists artists, especially the abstract expressionists, come to mind. One in particular is Jean Dubuffet, who was very interested in the concept of chance, and used nontraditional materials such as sand and tar to create some really amazing organic works. Dubuffet always comes to mind for me when I see images created under a microscope.

  • Christy F says:

    Beautiful microscopy and labeling!

  • Kim Czepiga says:

    BRAVO! A standing ovation for sharing this stunning example of TODAY’S research. I am a 10 1/2 years healthy stable survivor with metastatic Her2+++ breast cancer following a clinical trial with Univ of Washington’s Tumor Vaccine Group in 2005 where I had a series of vaccines. My amped up T Cells are doing a happy dance after seeing this incredible well done video. Thank you for sharing. Another bucket of hope….

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