Australia joins world-first Human Cell Atlas effort

08 November 2017
Human Cell Atlas collaborators
Scientists from across Australia have joined a bold
global effort to map every single cell in the human body.
Scientists from 14 of Australia’s biomedical centres have joined forces as part of a coordinated national approach to the Human Cell Atlas, an ambitious global initiative to create an ‘instruction manual for life itself.’

The Human Cell Atlas is a bold effort to map every single cell in the human body for a freely accessible database that could have a significant impact on how diseases are understood, diagnosed, monitored and treated.

Similar to the Human Genome Project, which catalogued the first full human DNA sequence and has since seen many medical success stories, The Human Cell Atlas has the potential to propel translational discoveries and applications for a new era of personalised and regenerative medicine.

Helping to lead Australia’s involvement is Dr Shalin Naik, a member of the Human Cell Atlas organising committee and cellular biologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Dr Naik said while cells were the building blocks of all living things, knowledge of them was surprisingly limited.

“The project is significant because the more we learn about cells – their different types, functions and how they interact with one another across different organs and tissues, in different people and across populations – the more we will understand about health and what might be going wrong in cases of disease,” Dr Naik said.

Dr Naik said crucial advances in single cell sequencing and spatial technologies over the past few years meant scientists now had the tools they needed. “Biologists have been studying different cell types for more than a century but we still don’t know the full picture because we’ve been limited by technology. 

“We’re now living in an unprecedented scientific era where the identity of each cell can be mapped with new technologies such as single cell RNA sequencing.

“At the Institute, we have leading expertise in generating information about cells using the single cell RNA sequencing technique. We also have world-leading bioinformaticians to analyse and interpret the masses of information or ‘big data’ resulting from these studies,” Dr Naik said.

Clinical genomics expert Dr Joseph Powell from The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience said the Human Cell Atlas could be a real ‘game-changer’, just like the Human Genome Project. 

“The Human Genome Project led to the discovery of more than 1900 disease genes. Today’s researchers can find a gene suspected of causing an inherited disease in a matter of days, rather than years. In Australia alone, there are now more than 1700 genetic tests for human conditions, enabling patients to learn their genetic risks for disease.

“The Human Cell Atlas holds similarly exciting potential for health. It could help to create a map for predicting disease, even before symptoms are observed or detected,” Dr Powell said.

The co-chairs of the Human Cell Atlas organising committee are Dr Aviv Regev from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, US, and Dr Sarah Teichmann from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK.

“The Human Cell Atlas strives to be open, equitable and collaborative across the globe,” Dr Regev said. Dr Teichman added, “we are excited to see Australian biomedical researchers coordinating and joining this effort.”

About the Human Cell Atlas

The Human Cell Atlas is an international collaborative consortium, which aims to create comprehensive reference maps of all human cells—the fundamental units of life—as a basis for both understanding human health and diagnosing, monitoring, and treating disease.

The Human Cell Atlas is a foundational, open resource charting cells, tissues, organs and systems throughout the body. The resource will impact every aspect of biology and medicine, propelling translational discoveries and applications and ultimately leading to a new era of precision medicine.

The Human Cell Atlas is steered and governed by an organising committee, spanning 27 scientists from 10 countries and diverse areas of expertise.


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