Creating a ‘manual for life itself’

Creating a ‘manual for life itself’

 Illuminate newsletter, December 2017
December 2017

Dr Shalin Naik
Dr Shalin Naik is helping to lead Australia’s involvement
in the world-first Human Cell Atlas project.

Australia has joined the world-first Human Cell Atlas project to map every cell in the human body and create an ‘instruction manual for life itself’.

It is anticipated the freely accessible database will have a significant impact on how diseases are understood, diagnosed and treated. 

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute cell biologist Dr Shalin Naik is helping to lead Australia’s involvement. He is one of 27 members of the Human Cell Atlas Organizing Committee, including representatives from Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, US and Riken, Japan.

Next level knowledge

Dr Naik said the more we knew about cells, the more we would understand health and what might be going wrong in cases of disease.

“At the moment, we know so little about individual cells, even though they are the building blocks of life,” Dr Naik said.

“The Human Cell Atlas will take our knowledge to the next level.” 

“The Human Cell Atlas will take our knowledge to the next level with information about how cells function and interact with one another across different organs and tissues; as well as across different people and populations.”

Human Genome Project

The project has been compared to the influential Human Genome Project, which has seen many medical success stories.

In Australia alone, the Human Genome Project has led to more than 1700 genetic tests for human conditions, enabling patients to learn of their genetic risks for disease.

“The Human Genome Project provided us with a ‘parts’ list. The Human Cell Atlas will inform how all those parts fit and work together, as well as what happens when they don’t,” Dr Naik said.

Human Cell Atlas map of contributors
Map showing Human Cell Atlas collaborators from around
the world, including 14 research centres in Australia.

Lending Australian expertise

Experts from Australia’s top biomedical institutions recently met at the Institute for the first time to share ideas and collectively plan Australia’s first pilot study. 

Dr Naik said technological advances over the past few years meant the identity of each cell could be clearly and efficiently mapped.

“We have the expertise and technology at the Institute to contribute world-class data.

"We’re working with the latest single cell RNA sequencing techniques which enable us to process hundreds of thousands of cells in a day, rather than a year. 

“We also have bioinformaticians at the top of their game who know how to interpret the resulting masses of ‘big data',” Dr Naik said. 

About the ambitious effort

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