The International Human Cell Atlas would describe all the cell types in the human body, across all tissues and organs, to create a reference map of the healthy human body. This could revolutionise how doctors and researchers understand, diagnose and treat diseases such as Alzheimer's, asthma and cancer.
Experts from around the world – convened by Wellcome, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard – are meeting to agree the first phase of the Human Cell Atlas. It will be made freely available to researchers around the world.
Cells are the fundamental units of life, but we know surprisingly little about them. Scientists can use microscopes or analyse clumps of cells for common properties but to fully understand the intricacies of every cell type they need to look at each cell individually.
This is now possible using a technique called single-cell genomics. It allows researchers to separate individual cells from tissues and measure the RNA messages within them. These messages help to give each cell its own identity and distinguish it from the many other types.