LONDON, Aug. 9 (Xinhua) -- Pioneering scientific research to create the world's first map of all the cells in the human body will be able to go ahead following a 7-million pound (about 9 million U.S. dollars) grant, it was announced on Thursday.
Wellcome, a charitable scientific foundation, announced the grant for the Human Cell Atlas project, which aims to transform biological research and medicine by allowing scientists to define the exact characteristics of every single cell type, creating a map of human bodies.
The cutting-edge international research has been compared to the Human Genome Project in its scale and ambition.
The Wellcome grant is the first major financial commitment to fund the British contribution to the research which will power the collection, sequencing and analysis of cells. The entire project currently covers 27 scientists in 10 different countries.
The project will build on a long history of research in genomics and biomedical issues by British scientists, aided by strong links between research groups, tissue biobanks and hospitals.
Researchers hope that insights gained from the atlas could give a better understanding of how diseases such as asthma and cancer develop and progress, or point to new diagnostic tools and treatments.
"The human body is made up of 37 trillion cells and the atlas seeks to create a three-dimensional map of those cells -- where they are, what kind of cells they are, what are their features, how do they relate to each other, where do they sit," Dr. Katrina Gold, of Wellcome, told Xinhua in an exclusive interview on Thursday afternoon.
"That is the first layer of information and then when you know what a healthy organ, for example, looks like you can zoom into the organ and understand in a detailed way what is there and how cells talk to each other and start to compare that to a situation where a tissue may be diseased and understand what is going wrong," said Gold.
"Because this is a fundamental research science project looking at the nature of cells, most of the problems are caused by cells misbehaving in some way and in order to understand these processes you have to go back to how are those cells working when normal and how they react when they are disturbed by disease," Gold also said.
The research on both donated adult and developing tissues will allow scientists to compare the properties of cells and tissues present at different stages of life.
The aim is to understand a period of human development that has previously been a dark area for researchers.
This could include new understanding about cancers, many of which hijack the same pathways that are involved in early development, or answer specific questions such as why adult tissue scars, but developing skin does not.
"The grant is to be spent over about two to three years; this is the first draft atlas and there is an estimated five years needed for that," said Gold. "There will probably be another phase, when things will be scaled up to give a more solid final draft. This is roughly a 10-year timescale."
The new project will be led by Dr. Sarah Teichmann, head of cellular genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge. She said: "The Human Cell Atlas will transform our understanding of human health and disease, and we are excited to be able to embark on the next stage of this important project."
Five British institutions besides the Sanger Institute will collaborate on the project, including Newcastle University, King's College London, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the European Bioinformatics Institute.