The race to map the human body — one cell at a time

Feb 20, 2017

By Heidi Ledford

The first time molecular biologist Greg Hannon flew through a tumour, he was astonished — and inspired. Using a virtual-reality model, Hannon and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge, UK, flew in and out of blood vessels, took stock of infiltrating immune cells and hatched an idea for an unprecedented tumour atlas.

“Holy crap!” he recalls thinking. “This is going to be just amazing.”

On 10 February, the London-based charity Cancer Research UK announced that Hannon’s team of molecular biologists, astronomers and game designers would receive up to £20 million (US$25 million) over the next five years to develop its interactive virtual-reality map of breast cancers. The tumour that Hannon flew through was a mock-up, but the real models will include data on the expression of thousands of genes and dozens of proteins in each cell of a tumour. The hope is that this spatial and functional detail could reveal more about the factors that influence a tumour’s response to treatment.

The project is just one of a string that aims to build a new generation of cell atlases: maps of organs or tumours that describe location and make-up of each cell in painstaking detail.

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