"We are currently limited in our understanding of how cells differ across each organ, or even how many cell types there are in the body, said Sarah Teichmann, head of cellular genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom. "The Human Cell Atlas initiative is the beginning of a new era of cellular understanding, as we will discover new cell types; find how cells change across time, during development and disease; and gain a better understanding of biology."
The new atlas will identify each cell's type, such as whether it is an immune cell or brain cell. The map will also show where these cells are located within the body's tissues. In addition, it will distinguish among cell states, for instance, what a naive immune cell looks like before it has encountered any pathogens and how a seasoned immune cell appears after it has been activated by a bacterium, the researchers said.
Moreover, the atlas will capture key characteristics of cells as they transition, for instance, the changes that occur as a stem cell becomes a specific type of cell, the scientists said. This will help researchers trace the lineage of each cell, such as how a predecessor stem cell in bone marrow turns into a functional red blood cell, the researchers said.
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These details could help scientists understand how diseases, such as Alzheimer's, asthma and different cancers, develop and how to therapeutically target them, the researchers said.
Once completed, the atlas will be made freely available to scientists around the world, the researchers added.
"This is exactly the kind of transformative technology that will advance the mission of curing, preventing or managing all diseases by the end of the century," said Cori Bargmann of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the incoming president of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, who is involved in the initiative.
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