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Researchers are changing the game with ‘Google maps of cells’

Researchers work to create an atlas of healthy human cells, hopefully leading toward better treatment for cancers and other diseases

SHARE Researchers are changing the game with ‘Google maps of cells’
Black Microscope

In this Oct. 12, 2012 file photo, shows a closeup view of a microscope taking a look at a slide with meningitis causing fungus Exserohilum rostratum at the Mycotic lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

AP Photo/Pouya Dianat, File

Where would we be without Google maps on our cellphones? Lost, probably.

With only a few clicks of a button, one can be sure they are headed down the correct street, figure out the closest grocery store or plan a hike.

Currently, the National Institute of Health Common Fund Human BioMolecular Cell Atlas Program — or HuBMAP — is working to develop a global platform to map healthy cells in the human body — a “Google maps” for your cells.

As described by Dr. Graham MacLeod in a 2020 paper for the University of Manitoba Journal of Medicine, HuBMAP “seeks to develop a comprehensive, accessible three-dimensional molecular and cellular atlas of the human body, in health and under various disease conditions.”

Banding together biologists of all kinds (cellular, molecular, developmental, computational), HuBMAP has the goal of creating an atlas of the estimated 37 trillion cells in the human body.

The specific three-dimensional organization of cells has an impact on the function, aging and disease progression in different organs and tissues, and the consortium is working toward improving the world’s knowledge of this area.

Having a greater understanding at a deeper level will greatly help clinical researchers and drug developers in developing specialized medical treatments. As Ed Yong of The Atlantic puts it in his article on the project, “Geneticists are constantly learning about genes that influence our risk of disease, but genes don’t perform in a vacuum. They perform in our cells. And since the 30 trillion cells in your body all share the same genes, you need to know which cells are actually using the gene in question. Where are those cells? What do they do normally, and what goes wrong in cases of disease?”

HuBMAP will improve scientists’ ability to study stem cells and hopefully regrow damaged tissue. One of the projects includes creating a framework for studying the molecular markers of breast cancer and creating an atlas of aging and senescent cells (SenNet). 

The Human Cell Atlas is not going to reveal every little secret of the human body, but it can provide a research foundation, make future experiments easier and save lives. As Dana Pe’er, of Columbia University, told The Atlantic, “Think of what having the genome has done for biology: We can find genes that cause disease, and sequence tumors, and personalize medicine,” says Pe’er. “I think the Human Cell Atlas would have the same impact. And we need it to make sense of our genome.”

Scientists have been able to sequence DNA from cancerous tissue samples. With a few clicks of a computers, researchers with the Human Cell Atlas are able to reverse engineer which cells are present. According to The Atlantic, this “might help cancer biologists to better classify tumors into distinct types, and develop more effective tailor treatments.”

With the help of bioinformaticians at the University of Pittsburgh’s Supercomputing Center, Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University, the gleaned information will be uploaded into a digital cloud and turned into a map.

Information from over 600 labs will be sent to the bioinformatics team. After the data has been annotated it will be uploaded in a locally maintained, hybrid cloud infrastructure.

The team will then work to mold the genetic and protein signatures of healthy cells into a comprehensive map that can be seen by millions of medical persons.  

Per the Pittwire, Kay Metis, SeNet program manager at the University of Pittsburgh said, “This project has the potential to impact Alzheimer’s and aging research and make a big difference to the direction of medical research going forward.”