The human body contains more than 37 trillion cells – and Sarah Teichmann wants to map them all. She’s the pioneer behind the Human Cell Atlas, an international bid to build a 3D map of all our cells. A catalogue of these foundational units of life would give researchers unparalleled power to understand and treat human disease – “laying a foundation for a new era of precision medicine”, says Teichmann, head of cellular genetics at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK.
Since its October 2016 launch, 19 international scientific institutions and 500 scientists have joined the Atlas, collaborating to map the body’s cells, organ by organ. They’re seeking an initial 20 global donors for each tissue type, with research falling into five main areas, including the brain, the immune system and cancer. But the idea for the Atlas really took root in 2009, when Teichmann, who studies immune T-cells, recognised the potential of an emerging technique called single-cell genomics. This allows researchers to study genetic differences for the first time.
For decades, the scientific canon held that the body contained just 200 cell types. The new technique showed that there were hundreds more. “There are so many cell types and cell states that we didn’t know about, popping up unexpectedly when we use this technology,” says Teichmann, who co-founded the Single Cell Genomics Centre in Cambridge in 2012 to develop its applications. “It became clear that we could one day think about sampling all the cells in an organism as complex as the human.”
To do that, Teichmann needed help. So in early 2016, she contacted Aviv Regev, a computational biologist at MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute to gauge her interest. “She became my partner in crime,” says Teichmann – and together, they founded the Atlas. Although single-cell genomics was the catalyst, the project had a larger goal. “It’s not just about understanding single cells,” Teichmann says. “The Atlas also has the ambition of mapping them within tissues.”
Emerging imaging techniques can take 2D tissue sections and trace their molecular profile, allowing researchers to “stack [them] to reconstruct 3D architectures”, as Teichmann puts it. By building detailed tissue profiles, scientists can then see exactly how cells interact, how they function when they’re healthy – and what changes when they’re not. At this resolution researchers could, for instance, identify how specific cancer cells interact to target them precisely with drugs, or understand how individual immune cells malfunction in infectious disease.
Next, the Atlas will create a digital platform, with funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to store the terabytes of data that will emerge from the labs. Ultimately, everything the Atlas contains will be open source to accelerate the development of new therapies and treatments, Teichmann says. “It’s going to be a treasure trove of discovery.”