An ambitious project called the Human Cell Atlas is attempting to study all the cells in the human body – of which there are more than 37 trillion. Researchers hope that creating such a detailed picture of human biology will help them to better understand the processes that can lead to disease. This article is based on information from the Human Cell Atlas’ website, which you can visit here.
What ‘Cell Atlas’ Means
Essentially, a cell atlas would be a collection of cellular reference maps that contain information about all the different types of cells and where they are in the body. It could also track how cells can alter over time, such as their stages of development, or how they change in response to other cells such as pathogens. Researchers from around the world could then use this ‘atlas’ as a resource for studying a range of questions about the human body.
How it Could be Used
If scientists manage to develop this detailed understanding of human cells, then it could have huge benefits for future research. According to the website, potential uses of the Atlas could include achieving a better understanding of how genetic variants work and what cells the genes act in, finding markers of disease, and finding new targets for medicines to act upon, amongst many other possible applications. The authors write that it “will impact almost every aspect of biology and medicine.”
For example, researchers have recently identified a rare and previously unknown cell type in airway tissue, one that appears to play a key role in cystic fibrosis. Using new technologies that enable scientists to study gene activity in thousands of individual cells, the team analyzed the airway in mice and validated the results in human tissue. This work expands scientific and clinical understanding of lung biology, with broad implications for many diseases of the airway.
Creating a cell atlas is a huge undertaking, and the project is still in its early stages. Right now, the researchers are focusing on carrying out preliminary pilot projects. These are designed to provide new insights into biology, as well as help them to develop better methods of sampling and analysis that can be transferred to the larger cell atlas project. These pilot projects cover a diverse range of topics, including a partnership with the Immunological Genome Project to delve into the immune system, multiple projects on the brain and nervous system, and understanding how cells interact in cancers. To find out more about these projects, click here.