New study aims to shed light on the biology of health through mapping human cells

William Woods Undergraduate

There is still so much about the human body we do not know, and biologists, scientists, and healthcare professionals worldwide continue to seek answers and develop the tools and knowledge to fight for our health and wellbeing.

In October a team of world-leading scientists embarked on a journey called The Human Cell Atlas, with the intention of doing just that.

The mission: To map all 35 trillion cells within the human body.

“Having an understanding of who we are is part of the human endeavor,” said Aviv Regev, a computational biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT in Massachusetts, in an article by The Guardian. “We want to know what we are made of. But this will have a substantial impact on our scientific understanding and as a result, on our ability to diagnose, monitor and treat disease.”

Though the idea started with a small community of scientists in London, labs around the world are already on board to participate, and will be working through the human body organ by organ and cell by cell. This will give researchers insight into not only the full variety of cells within the body, but also where they are located within one’s organs.

What would this mean for the future of medical and scientific research? According to The Human Cell Atlas website, this project could allow researchers the ability to:

  • Systematically study biological changes associated with different diseases
  • Locate where genes associated with disease are active in our bodies
  • Analyze the molecular mechanisms that govern the production and activity of different cell types
  • Sort out how different cell types combine and work together to form tissues

Regev believes the project will impact almost every aspect of medicine and biology for decades to come. The atlas would supply scientists with a complete list of immune cells in the body, allowing them the possibility to create new therapies to tackle autoimmune diseases and block the body’s rejection of implanted organs.

Sten Linnarsson, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, also shares the impact this project could have on the future of cell-based therapies that aim to regenerate lost or damaged tissue, and how the atlas would help to reassure scientists that they had grown the right cells.

“In sickness and in health, cells are the fundamental units of life, and only by knowing our cells will we be able to fully comprehend the mechanisms of human disease,” said Linnarsson.

Bachelors in biology students, especially those within William Woods’ pre-medicine concentration, can dive deeper into learning about these fundamental units of life through courses like BIO 405: Cell and Molecular Biology, that focus on the ultrastructure of the cell, the movement of materials into and within the cell and more.

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