MDC receives funding to collaborate on Human Cell Atlas

The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin is participating as a research partner in the Human Cell Atlas (HCA). The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has now announced that it will provide financial support for the HCA’s sub-project “Towards a Human Cardiac Cell Atlas.”

Organs and tissues are comprised of very different types of cells. The heart, for example, contains muscle cells, connective tissue cells, nerve cells, and immune cells, all of which vary greatly in size and properties – despite having the same DNA. “Relatively little is known about the exact composition and cell architecture of the various types of cells in the heart,” says Professor Norbert Hübner, head of the MDC’s Genetics and Genomics of Cardiovascular Diseases research team and leader of the “Towards a Human Cardiac Cell Atlas” project.

Single cardiomyocytes have to be separated before sequencing. Credit: Gotthardt Lab, MDC

Single cardiomyocytes have to be separated before sequencing. Credit: Gotthardt Lab, MDC

This pilot project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative donor advised fund, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. It is part of efforts to create the Human Cell Atlas, an ambitious global collaboration launched by leading researchers in October 2016. Professor Nikolaus Rajewsky, who sits on the Organizing Committee of the HCA, represents the MDC in the collaboration.

The ultimate goal is the reconstruction of a three-dimensional heart model

The researchers aim to not only map and characterize all cells in a healthy human body, but also to discover how cells change during disease progression. The preliminary work that is beginning now should produce the technical and scientific conditions necessary for isolating and investigating all individual cell types. The Human Cell Atlas is supported in part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic organization set up by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan to advance human potential and promote equal opportunity through world class engineering, grantmaking, impact investing, policy, and advocacy work.

A number of Berlin-based research teams, led by Professor Norbert Hübner, Professor Nikolaus Rajewsky, Professor Michael Gotthardt, Dr. Jan Philipp Junker, as well as teams from Boston, Singapore, and Stanford will, for example, examine how state-of-the-art gene sequencing technologies can be used to understand individual cells of the heart. A still unsolved problem is the RNA sequencing of heart muscle cells, whose size poses special technical challenges. “The characterized cell populations should lead ultimately to the construction of a three-dimensional model that explains the components, structures and ultimately functions of the human heart,” says Norbert Hübner. The scientists anticipate that the newly developed methods will also lay the groundwork for advances in the mapping of other organs.

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