MORE ABOUT THE HUMAN CELL ATLAS

WHAT IS THE HUMAN CELL ATLAS?

A MAP OF HUMAN CELLS

For as long as scientists have been able to observe cells under the microscope, they have been interested in understanding how cells work. For at least 150 years, researchers have been characterizing and cataloging the cells of the human body based on their shape, location, molecules, and function. More recently, it has become possible to classify cells by their expression profiles, that is, the levels at which they express RNA or protein from each gene. However, until the early 2010s, this characterization happened at the level of large chunks of tissue, made of millions or billions of cells, rather than individual cells.

Thanks to new single cell genomics and spatial imaging technologies developed since the late 2000s and early 2010s, it is now possible to measure gene expression profiles in individual cells. These large scale data can be used with machine learning algorithms to decipher how the cells differ from and interact with their neighbors, and how they form and function in the tissue. This now allows scientists to identify and understand cell types in unprecedented detail, resolution and breadth.

The Human Cell Atlas (HCA) is an international group of researchers using a combination of these new technologies to create cellular reference maps with the position, function and characteristics of every cell type in the human body. We believe the work of the HCA is immensely beneficial to all of humanity, further information can be read here.

WHY DO WE NEED A HUMAN CELL ATLAS?

The Human Cell Atlas initiative is transforming our understanding of human health and disease and will impact almost every aspect of biology and medicine.

The cellular reference maps it is generating are empowering the global research community to analyze the molecular mechanisms that govern the development and activity of different cell types, and discover how different cell types come together to form tissues.  They also allow researchers to systematically study the biological changes associated with different diseases, and understand in which cells genes associated with disease are active in our bodies.

More specifically, a human cell atlas will:

  • Catalog all cell types (for example, immune cells or brain cells) and sub-types in the human body.
  • Map cell types to their location within tissues and within the body, and see the architecture of each tissue.
  • Identify cell states (for example, a naive immune cell that has not yet encountered a pathogen compared to the same immune cell type after it is activated by encountering a bacterium; other examples include different proliferation states).
  • Trace the developmental trajectories of cells, such as from a predecessor stem cell in bone marrow to a functional red blood cell.
  • Reveal the cells and processes involved during development through to adulthood.
  • Provide an openly available, globally representative resource, that will allow researchers worldwide to study and understand health and disease.

WHAT HAS THE HCA CONTRIBUTED SO FAR?

Even in its early stages, the Human Cell Atlas is already having immediate, tangible, and transformative benefits including across many diseases. This is also notable in the HCA community’s contributions to COVID-19 research. Our researchers have identified cells susceptible to infection, developed an understanding of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus attacks cells throughout the body, described mechanisms in severe disease, distinguished the immune responses of adults and children, and much more.

HCA General Meeting 2022 – State of HCA

Building the Ultimate Map of the Human Body – Aviv Regev and Sarah Teichmann

Human Cell Atlas – International Collaboration

WHAT ELSE COULD A CELL ATLAS HELP US DISCOVER?

The Human Cell Atlas is likely to impact almost every aspect of biology and medicine, leading to a richer understanding of life’s most fundamental units and principles. Some examples of what a cell atlas is helping scientists and physicians do:

  • Provide a reference map for comparing related cells and identifying new cell types, states (behaviors), and how cells transition among them.
  • Help interpret genetic variants associated with disease risk or human traits by determining the cells in which such genes are acting.
  • Distinguish how cells behave differently in disease and health.
  • Serve as the basis for new medical diagnostic tests by identifying new, more fine-grained characteristics linked to health or disease.
  • Provide a direct view of human biology in the organism, removing the distorting aspects of cell culture and facilitating better comparison with current animal and other models and analysis of legacy data.
  • Discover targets for therapeutic intervention, and
  • Drive the development of new technologies and advanced analysis techniques.

WHEN WAS THE HUMAN CELL ATLAS INITIATIVE LAUNCHED?

The international Human Cell Atlas Consortium was co-founded in 2016 by Dr Aviv Regev, then at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (USA), and Dr Sarah Teichmann at the Wellcome Sanger Institute (UK). Together they organised a launch event in London, which brought together a collaborative community of approximately 100 world-leading scientists, to discuss how to build a Human Cell Atlas. Since then, the global initiative has grown to encompass more than 2,300 members from over 83 countries around the world.

WHO ARE THE MAIN FUNDERS OF THE HCA?

The HCA is a grass-roots led, global and open scientific project that is supported by multiple funders from around the world.  For more details please see the Funders Collective website.  Such a large, global initiative needs diverse, collaborative funding, and the HCA community is grateful to all the funders for their generosity and support.

WHY IS A GLOBAL EFFORT REQUIRED?

Building the Human Cell Atlas requires collaboration across the international scientific community for several reasons. First, experts from many different disciplines, including  biology, medicine, computation, genomics, and technology development, must collaborate to build this resource and to build the tools to use it in a coherent and consistent way.

Second, the Human Cell Atlas should represent global humanity as a whole.  This goal can  only be achieved if researchers from communities around the world contribute to the effort, work within their local communities to explain the benefits and purpose of the HCA, and collect and study samples representing humans’ incredible diversity.  We’re proud that the HCA scientific community includes members from every inhabited continent – they are essential for us to reach our goal of a representative atlas, which will help advance research and healthcare worldwide.

MORE INFORMATION AND FAQ

See the HCA White Paper, available here to download, for an overview of the effort. It reveals our framework for the first draft of the atlas; descriptions of the technology and data analysis tools available to build the atlas; an introduction to the Data Coordination Platform that hosts the data for researchers worldwide; a deeper look at biological systems we are exploring and mapping; and details on the organization and governance of the HCA.

For further information you can also see our FAQ for researchers