Researchers from the global Human Cell Atlas Consortium are taking the first steps towards using powerful single-cell genome analysis tools to understand early human development and how this can affect health or lead to disease.

Preliminary projects for the Human Developmental Cell Atlas (HDCA) have sequenced a quarter of a million separate cells so far and the first tranche of data analysis is underway.

The HDCA programme will create genomic reference maps of all the cells that are important for human development, which will revolutionise our understanding of health and disease, from miscarriages and children’s developmental disorders, through to cancer and ageing.

The HDCA is one part of the ambitious Human Cell Atlas (HCA), a global consortium that aims to transform biological research and medicine by mapping every cell in the human body. Progress on the HDCA and other aspects of the Human Cell Atlas will be discussed at the international HCA meeting at the Wellcome Genome Campus, Cambridge on 8 March 2018.

250k developmental cells sequenced

Retinal cells. (Image credit: Irene Whitney, laboratory of Joshua Sanes, Klarman Cell Observatory, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Harvard University)

Many diseases have their origin in early human development, and a detailed understanding of development is key to explaining human health and disease. Researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Newcastle University have collected genomic data from over 250 thousand cells from a range of donated developing human tissues including liver, skin, kidney and placenta. This data will show which genes are switched on in each individual cell, and help explain vital processes in development.

“Our understanding of human development will be transformed by the HDCA project and could lead to significant advances in biology and medicine. We expect this fundamental research to deliver a wide range of important insights – from a better understanding of why miscarriages and genetic developmental disorders happen, through to understanding childhood cancers that have their root in development and the developmental pathways that cancer cells take advantage of in adults,” said Dr. Sarah Teichmann, co-chair of the HCA Organising Committee and Head of Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. 

Other primary areas of focus for the HDCA include an improved understanding of how blood cells form and how the immune system functions. In addition, further understanding of the processes during human development will shed light on the processes of ageing and how tissues repair themselves, which could lead to advances in regenerative medicine.


Materials provided by the Wellcome Sanger Insitute. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.