Press release

Human Cell Atlas gets a boost with first funding from Wellcome

A team of UK scientists will begin work to scale up efforts to create a Human Cell Atlas, after the first injection of funding for generating data from human cells is announced by Wellcome. The £7m in new funding marks a major contribution to the UK’s involvement in this global project to create a reference map of every single cell type in the human body.

The Human Cell Atlas aims to transform biological research and medicine by allowing scientists to define the exact characteristics of every single cell type, creating a ‘Google map’ of our bodies. It has been compared to the Human Genome Project in its scale and ambition.

The funding announced today 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.

The new funding will allow researchers to tackle these major challenges:

  • Understanding human development, by creating a pilot atlas of selected developing human tissues.
  • Creating a highly detailed atlas of the skin.
  • A spotlight on immune-related diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease and coeliac disease. 

The 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. 

The new project 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. She 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 new funding 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 that is jointly chaired by Dr Sarah Teichmann from the Wellcome Sanger Institute 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 around the world.

The funding from Wellcome is the most recent major financial commitment to the HCA. Previous financial support includes the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) funding to create a Data Coordination Platform that will be essential to underpinning the creation of the atlas. The platform will share and analyse data collected from researchers working on the HCA from around the world.

Five other UK institutions will collaborate on this project and receive funding as part of today’s announcement:  Newcastle University, King’s College London, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and the European Bioinformatics Institute.

Dr Michael Dunn, Head of Genetics and Molecular Sciences at Wellcome said: “The UK has a long history as a leader in these major global genomics projects and the Human Cell Atlas, as a natural successor to the Human Genome Project, will be no exception. The new funding builds on decades of progress and investment from Wellcome in the field of genomics. We are really excited to be part of this huge global effort that will have such important implications for medicine and health.”