Hidden within human cells are the root causes of many diseases. The Cell Atlas will begin to unlock these mysteries, showing how cells work in healthy people and, more importantly, what takes place when disease strikes.
A Massive Undertaking
The Cell Atlas will be made available to researchers around the world, shedding light on the many different types of cells that control the body’s major organs, including the brain, heart and lungs.
This type of resource has never been created. Much of the technology necessary to complete the Cell Atlas was only developed recently. These new tools will be deployed at CZ Biohub and other participating institutions to map the cells of the human body in unprecedented detail.
Teams at CZ Biohub and other research facilities will collaborate to create a first draft of the Cell Atlas, with the intention to generate a broader effort to steadily refine the map. Once complete, the full Cell Atlas will be a tool scientists can use to help solve humanity’s most perplexing medical problems and win the fight against human disease.
Cell Atlas Technologies
One piece of technology allows us to sequence the genome of an individual cell. Each cell in the body contains roughly the same number of genes, but the sequence data shows which genes are turned on or turned off, revealing what kind of cell it is.
This sequence acts like “software” that instructs cells to perform specific functions, like producing hormones or blood, or sending signals across the brain.
Another piece of technology crucial to the Cell Atlas project goes by the acronym CRISPR. CRISPR is a tool developed by scientists from a molecular gene editing system found naturally in bacteria that can be directed to turn on or off any gene.
With CRISPR technology, we will be able to conduct experiments to see if a particular combination of on-or-off genes can stop or even reverse the progress of a disease. The end game? Insights that generate new drugs, vaccines or diagnostic tests targeting the root cause of a disease.
After we have isolated various cell types, we can methodically annotate the Atlas by labeling or “tagging” the different types of proteins found in each cell, which are what genes produce to control a wide range of bodily functions. These tags are tiny fluorescent molecules that glow when viewed with a fluorescent microscope.
With the aid of the CRISPR technology, scientists will be able to alter the protein dynamics in a particular cell and, combined with the tags, study protein function with unprecedented precision. Cell proteins are frequently hijacked by infectious diseases like Ebola and HIV, causing their growth across the body. And in non-infectious conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, proteins become damaged.
The fluorescent tags would also allow researchers to immediately screen any virus, bacteria or other infectious agent to identify the proteins it encounters as it invades a cell. Using a fluorescent microscope to light up the proteins, they will be able watch these encounters occur in real time. Scientists could also learn what happens inside the immune cells of people with rheumatoid arthritis that causes these cells to start attacking healthy tissue, thus causing joint pain.