Scientists seek to map all human cells in vast atlas

Fri Oct 14, 2016 10:05am EDT
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By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - Scientists launched a global initiative on Friday to map out and describe every cell in the human body in a vast atlas that could transform researchers' understanding of human development and disease.

The atlas, which is likely to take more than a decade to complete, aims to chart the types and properties of all human cells across all tissues and organs and build a reference map of the healthy human body, the scientists said.

Cells are fundamental to understanding the biology of all health and disease, but scientists cannot yet say how many we have, how many different types there are, or how they differ from one organ to another, one project leader said.

"The human cell atlas initiative is the beginning of a new era of cellular understanding," Sarah Teichmann, head of cellular genetics at Britain's Sanger Institute, told reporters.

"We will discover new cell types, find how cells change across time during development and disease and gain a better understanding of biology," she said.

The project is currently led by a team from the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard in the United States and the Sanger Institute and Wellcome Trust in Britain. The plan is for research teams and funders worldwide to collaborate.

By making the atlas - essentially a vast database of cellular detail - freely available to scientists the world over, the scientists hope to transform research into human development and the progression of diseases such as asthma, Alzheimer's and cancer.

The human body is made of trillions of cells – the fundamental units of life – which divide, grow and take on distinct functions in the embryo, eventually leading to different cell types such as skin cells, neurons or fat cells.   Continued...