Creating a description of every cell in the human body, to act as a reference map for biomedical science, sounds like a madly ambitious pipe dream. Save for the fact that an international initiative has set about making it happen. A truly global project, the Human Cell Atlas aims to completely change how doctors and researchers understand, diagnose, and treat disease.

Sarah TeichmannTo find out more about the project we spoke to Dr Sarah Teichmann FMedSci, Head of Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Sarah will be speaking at Festival of Genomics London next year about her work in single cell genomics, and has previously described the Atlas as “the beginning of a new era of cellular understanding.”

FLG: How is the Human Cell Atlas project going?

ST: It’s going well, obviously it’s in the early stages at the moment. We’re in the pilot phase, so it’s a very exciting time. We’re finding our feet on how to shape the project forward.

We had a kick-off meeting at the Wellcome Trust in October with about a hundred scientists, funders, key people from industry, all from around the world. There is a lot of enthusiasm to take things forward and start to explore what the best technologies are going forward in terms of genomics, and in terms of spatial methods; what the best biological and clinical communities would be to take on different parts of the project.

This also involves fundraising, forming networks of scientists, exploring the computational technology, methods, and databases for processing and storage and so on. We have another meeting in February that will focus on technology for the consortium.

FLG: What kind of impact will the Human Cell Atlas have on healthcare?

ST: It will have an impact on healthcare, as well as on basic science, in terms of understanding genetic diseases. It will have an impact in the sense that you will be able to understand the penetrance of a mutation, once you know the expression patterns in a comprehensive way across human cells and tissues. That will also have a direct impact in terms of interpreting toxicology of drugs, because sometimes genes are expressed in unexpected places and so side effects can be unexpected, but they can be predicted and interpreted in a much better way way if you have a comprehensive overview of expression patterns.

There will also be an impact in healthcare in terms of using the Human Cell Atlas framework for single cell transcriptomics and spatial mapping, which the Human Cell Atlas is aiming to apply to a healthy reference that can be compared to disease states of tissues.

FLG: What other areas are likely to benefit from the Human Cell Atlas?

ST: We already know from publications that have come out using single cell RNA-seq as a core technology that there’re surprises everywhere. When you look at cells at that resolution, surprises are popping up everywhere! New and unexpected cell states have emerged from these studies, and this has become such a repeated pattern that I think people have come round to the view that this approach now has to be scaled up and applied to the whole body, because there is so much that is unknown and undiscovered. Publications like this have given us the motivation to apply this on a large scale.

FLG: What are you planning to speak about at the Festival of Genomics?

ST: I will be speaking about single cell RNA sequencing, our studies on the immune system, and the dynamics of immune responses dissected using single cell RNA.

FLG: What are you hoping to get out the Festival?

ST: I gather that the format is quite unusual; a meeting of different constituencies with an interest in genomics, and that piqued my interest. It’s unusual to see both academics, people from industry, and students and so on, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that works. And I’ve heard that it’s a fun event, so I’m looking forward to it!

FLG: Is there an importance in bringing different stakeholders together at events like the Festival?

ST: I’m in favour of inspiring people to be enthusiastic about genomics across different areas of science and society, so I think that’s a positive thing. It’s also an opportunity for brainstorming, and seeing whether there are opportunities for translation, for interacting with people from the tech industry, from the pharmaceutical industry, with students, and that’s the key benefit that I can see. I am open to surprises!

FLG: What got you involved in the field in the first place?

ST: I’ve had an interest in genomics since I was an undergrad. What excited me is that genomics has a very global approach, a global philosophy, and so the special thing about genome biology is that you are getting at biology in a comprehensive way. Biology can seem so infinite because there are 20,000 genes in the human genome and if you look at the interactions between genes you’re looking at 20,000 squared, another order of magnitude, and it can seem like this infinitely complicated intractable system. The thing that really attracted me to genomics is that you are introducing finite boundaries to that seemingly infinite biological complexity.

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