Australia joins world-first Human Cell Atlas effort

9 November 2017

Scientists from 14 of Australia’s biomedical centres have joined forces as part of a coordinated national approach to the Human Cell Atlas, an ambitious global initiative to create an ‘instruction manual for life itself.’

The Human Cell Atlas is a bold effort to map every single cell in the human body for a freely accessible database that could have a significant impact on how diseases are understood, diagnosed, monitored and treated.

Similar to the Human Genome Project, which catalogued the first full human DNA sequence and has since seen many medical success stories, The Human Cell Atlas has the potential to propel translational discoveries and applications for a new era of personalised and regenerative medicine.

Helping to lead Australia’s involvement is Dr Shalin Naik, a member of the Human Cell Atlas organising committee and cellular biologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and Dr Joseph Powell, clinical genomics expert from The University of Queensland's Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB).

Dr Powell said the Human Cell Atlas could be a real ‘game-changer’, in the same way the Human Genome Project advanced our understanding of health and disease.

“The Human Genome Project led to the discovery of more than 1900 disease genes, meaning today’s researchers can find a gene suspected of causing an inherited disease in a matter of days, rather than years," Dr Powell said.

"In Australia alone, there are now more than 1700 genetic tests for human conditions, enabling patients to learn their genetic risks for disease.

“The Human Cell Atlas holds similarly exciting potential for health. It could help to create a map for predicting disease, even before symptoms are observed or detected."

Dr Naik said while cells were the building blocks of all living things, knowledge of them was surprisingly limited.

“The project is significant because the more we learn about cells – their different types, functions and how they interact with one another across different organs and tissues, in different people and across populations – the more we will understand about health and what might be going wrong in cases of disease,” Dr Naik said.

He added that crucial advances in single cell sequencing and spatial technologies over the past few years meant scientists now had the tools they needed. 

“Biologists have been studying different cell types for more than a century but we still don’t know the full picture because we’ve been limited by technology," Dr Naik said. 

The co-chairs of the Human Cell Atlas organising committee are Dr Aviv Regev from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, US, and Dr Sarah Teichmann from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK.

“The Human Cell Atlas strives to be open, equitable and collaborative across the globe,” Dr Regev said.

Dr Teichman added, “We are excited to see Australian biomedical researchers coordinating and joining this effort.”

About the Human Cell Atlas

The Human Cell Atlas is an international collaborative consortium, which aims to create comprehensive reference maps of all human cells—the fundamental units of life—as a basis for both understanding human health and diagnosing, monitoring, and treating disease.

The Human Cell Atlas is a foundational, open resource charting cells, tissues, organs and systems throughout the body. The resource will impact every aspect of biology and medicine, propelling translational discoveries and applications and ultimately leading to a new era of precision medicine.

The Human Cell Atlas is steered and governed by an organising committee, spanning 27 scientists from 10 countries and diverse areas of expertise.

Media contacts: IMB Communications - 07 3346 2134, 0418 575 247, communications@imb.uq.edu.au

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