Human Cell Atlas: we're funding scientists at six UK research institutes

Wellcome is committing £7 million to the Human Cell Atlas, a global endeavour to map every single cell type in the human body. Dr Katrina Gold, from the Genetics and Molecular Sciences team, explains why Wellcome is backing this ambitious project.

Image showing different elements of skin: sebaceous glands, hair follicles, epidermis and stratum corneum

One area of research the funding will support is producing highly detailed data describing the cellular composition and spatial organisation of skin.

When the Human Genome Project was completed, we had, for the very first time, a reference map of all human genes. This revolutionised science and transformed our understanding of human biology. Genome sequencing underpins many of our scientific advances, and we’ll continue to reap the rewards of the Human Genome Project for decades to come.

Cells are the fundamental units of life, and the human body contains around 37 trillion of them. Most cells contain the same genome, but gene activity varies from cell to cell. To truly understand the genome, we need to understand how it instructs cells to carry out their unique functions in the body.

A new global initiative called the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) is setting out to tackle this challenge, using powerful genomics approaches to define the cell types in the human body and reveal how they behave in health and disease.

A window into the inner lives of cells

Recent advances in biology, engineering, chemistry and computation have led to a so-called 'resolution revolution' in genomics. Single-cell technologies now allow researchers to measure and analyse the genetic and molecular activity of individual cells with unprecedented accuracy and speed, and in vast numbers.

Where previously scientists measured the average properties of groups of cells, single-cell analysis provides a window into the highly dynamic 'inner lives' of individual cells. It’s the equivalent of a new microscope: scientists can analyse single cells in greater detail, and in greater number, than ever before.

New methods for spatial mapping are also emerging, so that the landscape of tissues can be charted and cells can be mapped to their specific locations in the body.

Science at scale

The HCA has the potential to transform biology and medicine, but science at this scale cannot be done in isolation. So we are funding an interdisciplinary team of scientists across the UK to collect and analyse millions of human cells.

This award will support experts in genomics, computational biology, cell and developmental biology, and medicine at six different UK research institutions. Together, they will build the Human Cell Atlas, in collaboration with international partners around the world.

Beyond cataloguing cell types and features, their goal is to reveal how:

  • cells communicate with each other and their environment
  • tissues develop and change over time
  • changes in cell behaviour can cause disease.

In time, this knowledge could lead to new diagnostic strategies, new treatments and new ways to monitor health and disease.

Data and protocols will be freely available

We believe that scientific knowledge achieves its greatest value when it can be accessed by everyone. The data, protocols and software funded by this research will be made openly and freely available, providing a high-quality resource for the entire scientific community.

We believe that the HCA will improve our understanding of health, disease and how life works at the most fundamental level. That is why we’re excited to support the international HCA consortium.  

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