The Human Cell Atlas Tackles 37 Trillion Cells

What is a human? We are more complex than just the chemicals and cells in our bodies, but decoding all of our genes can answer a lot of questions about why we get sick and how to prevent diseases. At the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom, researchers are undertaking a giant project: create a list of all the cells in the human body. There are 37 trillion.

Called the Human Cell Atlas, the project involves more than just running down the names of cells. They will decode the genes in every cell, identifying different types, and figuring out how the cells interact. This could change how we treat disease in the future. How? When coming up with ideas on how to treat a disease, scientists want to figure out how to create a drug or treatment that has the least side effects. Consider cystic fibrosis. One gene causes all the trouble in the lungs. When the Human Cell Atlas team published their first major report, they revealed that the windpipe lining, which connects the throat to the lungs, has seven cell types instead of presumed six. Understanding this extra cell could be essential in the cure for cystic fibrosis.

Cancer cells beneath a microscope

The Human Cell Atlas also has big plans for cancer treatments. There’s a new class of drug called a checkpoint inhibitor, which lets a patient’s own immune system attack tumor cells. However, some people’s cancer cells become resistant. The Human Cell Atlas will identify all the genes involved in that process and figure out how and why cancer cells react to certain medicines. Once this process is developed, doctors will be able to apply it to each individual and identify which checkpoint inhibitors to use. It could take another 5-10 years to finish the Human Cell Atlas, but it’s clear that important developments in medicine and science will be unveiled along the way.