Recent breakthroughs in both science and technology will soon combine to allow scientists to build a ‘3D Atlas’ of the 37 trillion cells our bodies are made of. Online technology magazine Wired recently took a closer look at the Human Cell Atlas project being run by Sarah Teichmann, Cambridge’s Sanger Institute’s head of cellular genetics.
The Human Cell Atlas project has, since its beginnings in October 2016, harnessed the cooperation of over 500 scientists from 9 different international science institutions in a collaborative effort to map each and every cell in the human body: one by one, organ by organ. The culmination of this extraordinary undertaking is hoped to be a new resource with the detail to offer an entirely new insight into how we understand human disease. And of course, how it can subsequently by treated. Human Cell Atlas believes it is “laying the foundation for a new era of precision medicine”.
Until relatively recently, science had defined around 200 different kinds of cells found in the human body.
However, a new technique called single-cell genomics meant scientists were, for the first time, able to study genetic differences between cells. It turns out there are at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, more cell variations than thought. However, mapping them in 3D ‘atlas’ of the human body would require the latest technology in the world to work in combination with the latest science.
Teichmann reached out to Aviv Regev, a computational biologist working at both MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute. They founded Human Cell Atlas together and began the process of bringing together the efforts of hundreds of leading international scientists in contributing towards the ambitious project.
The team see the most important knowledge that the initiative will provide as not isolating all of the different kinds of cells in our bodies but in how they combine to build different kinds of tissues. The latest imaging technology and techniques can convert 2D tissue sections into reconstructed 3D maps by tracing their molecular profile. Scientists will then be able to see how cells combine, interact and function when healthy and what changes occur when they are not.
Among the potential outputs of this knowledge could be identifying how cancer cells interact so they can be more accurately targeted with drugs and learning how infectious diseases defeat immune cells.
With funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Human Cell Atlas plans to build an open source digital platform that will store the huge swathes of data that this process of cell mapping will produce. The data will be openly accessible to scientists around the world in the hope that access to it will help new treatments and therapies be accelerated.