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9 August, 2018 - 13:58 By Tony Quested

Wellcome £7m for 'Google map' of the human body

Cambridge organisations are at the heart of a global project to create a human cell atlas referencing every single cell type of the human body to transform biological research and medicine.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute has invested £7 million to help UK scientists scale work on the project.

It will be led by Dr Sarah Teichmann, head of Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and co-chair of the Human Cell Atlas Organising Committee.

The University of Cambridge and the European Bioinformatics Institute, based at the Wellcome Genome Campus, are among UK partners in the work.

Creating a ‘Google map’ of our bodies has been compared to the Human Genome Project in its scale and ambition. Wellcome’s Sanger Institute in Cambridge also led the worldwide HGP collaboration.

The £7m Wellcome funding just announced is the first major financial commitment in the UK to power the collection, sequencing, and analysis of cells. It will build on the UK’s long history of excellence in genomics and biomedical research, aided by strong links between research groups, tissue biobanks, and hospitals. 

Researchers hope that insights gained from the atlas could help us to understand how diseases such as asthma and cancer develop and progress, or point to new diagnostic tools and treatments.

Research on both donated adult and developing tissues will allow scientists to compare the properties of cells and tissues present at different stages of life. 

They hope to gain a unique insight into a period of human development that has previously been a ‘black box’ for researchers. This could include new understanding about certain cancers, many of which hijack the same pathways that are involved in early development, or answer specific questions such as why adult tissue scars, but developing skin does not.

Dr Teichmann said: “The Human Cell Atlas will transform our understanding of human health and disease and we are excited to be able to embark on the next stage of this important project. 

“The new funding will bring together scientists from a huge variety of disciplines across the UK to enable the collection of data from millions of cells and drive progress towards this ambitious goal.”

The Wellcome cash will also establish important UK infrastructure in the cutting-edge single-cell sequencing techniques that have enabled the Human Cell Atlas to become a reality. 

This approach allows researchers to separate individual cells and see in detail the exact molecules and RNA messages that are produced within them. 
This type of analysis can identify new cell types, provide insights into how cells develop, reveal how cells change when they are infected and suggest how cell types may have evolved over time. 

All data generated by teams working on the Human Cell Atlas will be freely available to scientists all over the world to maximise the impact it can have on health.

The Human Cell Atlas is a global initiative, with an organising committee  jointly chaired by Dr Sarah Teichmann and Dr Aviv Regev from the Broad Institute and MIT in Massachusetts. 

It was launched at a meeting held at Wellcome in October 2016 and has since grown to encompass hundreds of researchers from over 50 countries.

• Picture courtesy: The Sanger Institute

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