The Human Cell Atlas Project

Our bodies have 37 trillion cells, and for decades, scientists have been sorting different types of cells, such as neurons, skin cells, liver cells, and tumors, in bulk. With this ‘averaged’ profiling, it is impossible to know which cells express particular genes, making it challenging to fully understand diseases and develop effective and safe treatments for them. Now, new and powerful DNA sequencing methods have emerged and they are finally allowing us to determine which genes are expressed at single cell resolution across the entire human body.

To tackle this enormous yet meaningful challenge, an international team called the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) consortium was recently established, coming together to build an open “Google Map of the human body”. The goal of the HCA is creating effective diagnostics based on very precise molecular information on all the cells in the body. In the context of tumors, we expect to identify all the key genes and cells and how they are related to each other, providing clinicians with a more precise understanding of the disease and drug response status.

At RIKEN IMS, we are deploying a 5’-based single-cell genomics strategy to uncover gene regulatory mechanisms and biomarkers of both coding and non-coding RNAs. Particularly, the 5’-approach captures enhancer-derived RNAs that guide us to the precise location of disease-associated regulatory elements. Building the Human Cell Atlas in Japan is necessary to provide a more precise map of local genetics and environment. By focusing on the most relevant diseases, this approach will catapult effective healthcare for the Japanese people.

For this effort, RIKEN IMS is engaging with medical institutions across Japan to collect and process human samples to elucidate the mechanisms of health and disease. We envisage that single cell medical network in Japan will accelerate local research and innovation, and initiate new engagements with industries (both life sciences and technologies) to positively impact the health and economy of Japan.

figure of The Single Cell Medical Network in Japan

Figure. The Single Cell Medical Network in Japan
(A) RIKEN is collaborating with various medical institutions in Japan to collect human samples. (B) RIKEN will work with the global Human Cell Atlas to create the reference map. (C) Samples from medical institutions will be processed by RIKEN using single cell profiling techniques. Individual analysis will be processed and returned to sample providers and integrative genomic analysis will be performed to construct a global map of promoters and enhancers at single cell resolution.

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