International Human Cell Atlas initiative gets underway

An ambitious global initiative to create a Human Cell Atlas - a description of every cell in the human body as a reference map to accelerate progress in biomedical science - is being discussed at an International meeting in London this week. Ultimately, the Human Cell Atlas would revolutionise how doctors and researchers understand, diagnose and treat disease.

<i>Image by Lauren Solomon, Broad Communications</i>
Credit: Image by Lauren Solomon, Broad Communications

An ambitious global initiative to create a Human Cell Atlas - a description of every cell in the human body as a reference map to accelerate progress in biomedical science - is being discussed at an International meeting in London this week. Ultimately, the Human Cell Atlas would revolutionise how doctors and researchers understand, diagnose and treat disease.

The first project of its kind, and as ambitious in scope as the Human Genome Project - which catalogued the first full human DNA sequence - the Human Cell Atlas aims to chart the types and properties of all human cells, across all tissues and organs, to build a reference map of the healthy human body.

The meeting, convened by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Wellcome Trust, brings international experts together to decide on the elements of the first phase of the Human Cell Atlas initiative.

By making the Atlas freely available to scientists all over the world, scientists hope to transform research into our understanding of human development and the progression of diseases such as asthma, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. In the future, the reference map could also point the way to new diagnostic tools and treatments.

The human body is made of trillions of cells – the fundamental units of life – which divide, grow and acquire distinct functions in the embryo, eventually leading to different cell types (such as skin cells, neurons or fat cells) that form the various tissues of the body. These tissues come together to form organs such as the lungs and the brain.

Previous knowledge of cells has come from looking at them under a microscope, or more recently by analysing clumps of hundreds or thousands of cells and finding the average properties. However, to see the true picture for every cell type, it is necessary to first separate the cells and then find out what molecules are produced in each. These molecules include sets of RNA messages, called the transcriptome, which help give each cell its own identity and distinguish it from the many other cell types found in the body.

A few years ago, measuring this complex and extensive information would have been impossible, but recent technological advances in the field of single-cell genomics can separate individual cells from different tissues and organs, and measure the transcriptome or other important molecules from each of them.

Dr Sarah Teichmann FMedSci, Head of Cellular Genetics at the Sanger Institute said: “The cell is the key to understanding the biology of health and disease, but we are currently limited in our understanding of how cells differ across each organ, or even how many cell types there are in the body. The Human Cell Atlas initiative is the beginning of a new era of cellular understanding as we will discover new cell types, find how cells change across time, during development and disease, and gain a better understanding of biology.”

Dr Aviv Regev, Chair of the Faculty at the Broad Institute, said: “We believe that a successful description of all the cells in the healthy human body will impact almost every aspect of biology and medicine in the decades to come. We now have the tools to understand what we are composed of, which allows us to learn how our bodies work, and uncover how all these elements malfunction in disease. By creating this atlas through an open, international effort, we are building a new research tool for the whole community.”

Dr Michael Dunn, Head of Genetics and Molecular Sciences at Wellcome, said: “Since sequencing the human genome, there have been some incredible advances in the field of genetics, but we still know surprisingly little about our individual cells and how they can vary across organs and body systems. We now have the technological capabilities, and the ability to carry out science at an unprecedented global scale, to bring an atlas of every human cell type within our reach. The knowledge we gain has the potential to transform our understanding of the human body and some of the most serious diseases of our time.”

The first phase of the Human Cell Atlas is likely to involve pilot projects at institutions around the world, and the development of a white paper detailing the steps to create a full Human Cell Atlas.

The phase 1 pilot projects already underway and being discussed this week have been organized through close coordination with research partners around the world. These are designed to generate insights into efficient and effective sampling and analysis strategies – which will inform the full-scale effort. These projects include surveys of:

  • the human immune system at an extremely high level of resolution;
  • diverse cells found in different parts of the brain and nervous system;
  • epithelial tissue, which lines the inside and outside of organs and is a protective layer in blood vessels; and
  • tumours from cancer patients studied at single-cell resolution, including malignant cells, surrounding normal cells and immune cells.

Dr Sarah Teichmann is Head of Cellular Genetics at the Sanger Institute, and is also a Director of Research in the Physics Department/University of Cambridge, and a Senior Research Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.

Dr Aviv Regev is Chair of the Faculty at the Broad Institute and is also a computational and systems biologist, a professor of biology at MIT, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and director of the Klarman Cell Observatory and Cell Circuits Program at the Broad Institute.

Key supporters of this project include Dr Cori Bargmann from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; Prof Sten Linnarsson from the Karolinska Institute,Sweden; Dr Piero Carninci and Dr Jay W. Shin from the RIKEN Center for Life Science Technologies, Japan; Prof Michael Stratton and Dr Peter Campbell, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute; Prof Alexander van Oudenaarden and Prof Hans Clevers, Hubrecht Institute, Netherlands; Prof Eric Lander, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Prof Jonathan Weissman, University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) and Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Prof Arnold Kriegstein, UCSF ; Dr Nir Hacohen, Massachusetts General Hospital; Prof Gary Nolan, Stanford School of Medicine; Prof Euhd Shapiro and Dr Ido Amit, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel; Prof Dana Pe'er, Sloan Kettering Institute; Prof Chris Ponting, University of Edinburgh and the Sanger Institute; and Prof Steve Quake, Stanford University and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub. 

Quotes from supporters
“The human cell atlas will be a foundational resource for the entire biomedical community.  This is exactly the kind of transformative technology that will advance the mission of curing, preventing, or managing all diseases by the end of the century. The Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative is thrilled to be part of this international collaborative effort.” - Dr Cori Bargmann from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the incoming president of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI)
“This is perfect timing for the Human Cell Atlas initiative, as the technology is now suitably advanced to carry it out.  As with the Human Genome project, this initiative is likely to stimulate further innovations in Single Cell Genomics and related technologies, enabling us to delve even deeper into how cells function.” - Dr Piero Carninci, Director of the Division of Genomic Technologies, Deputy Center Director at RIKEN Center for Life Science Technologies, Japan
“The Human Cell Atlas is the most exciting initiative to come out of the life science community in a long time. In sickness and in health, cells are the fundamental units of life, and only by knowing our cells will we be able to fully comprehend the mechanisms of human disease.” - Prof Sten Linnarsson, Professor of Molecular Systems Biology from the Karolinska Institute
To learn more: 

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard was launched in 2004 to empower this generation of creative scientists to transform medicine. The Broad Institute seeks to describe all the molecular components of life and their connections; discover the molecular basis of major human diseases; develop effective new approaches to diagnostics and therapeutics; and disseminate discoveries, tools, methods, and data openly to the entire scientific community.

Founded by MIT, Harvard, Harvard-affiliated hospitals, and the visionary Los Angeles philanthropists Eli and Edythe L. Broad, the Broad Institute includes faculty, professional staff, and students from throughout the MIT and Harvard biomedical research communities and beyond, with collaborations spanning over a hundred private and public institutions in more than 40 countries worldwide.

 The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world's leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease.

Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We’re a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate.