Professor Musa Mhlanga from the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been awarded a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for research that will contribute to a global initiative to map all cells in a human body.

Professor Mhlanga at the UCT Institute for Infectious Disease & Molecular Medicine (IDM) is among 38 recipients being recommended for the funding which supports the Human Cells Atlas, an international collaboration working to identify and map all the cells in the human body.

To build the atlas, researchers around the globe will study and document the types, numbers, locations, relationships and molecular parts of every human cell. Once mapped out, the atlas would provide a better understanding about how healthy cells work and what goes wrong when cells aren’t healthy.

The data generated by the project will be made openly and freely available, becoming a fundamental resource for scientists.

Prof Mhlanga compares the significance of the Human Cell Atlas to that of the Human Genome Project -a 13-year, international collaboration to sequence the entire human genome.

“Once we have cellular resolution for the trillions of cells in your body, we will be able to say whether a particular cell signature or cell structure signifies the onset of Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia, or infectious disease, for example,” said Prof Mhlanga.

“Diseases like mental illness will change dramatically because we will have the ability to peer into the brain and understand its onset, and potentially how to rebalance things – this will be absolutely transformative. And that’s just giving you a glimpse of the possibilities that the Human Cell Atlas will create,” continued Prof Mhlanga.

The initial phase of the Human Cell Atlas involves exploring and developing tools that will be applied in the project’s future phases of mapping and characterising all human cells.

Prof Mhlanga and his colleagues are developing a technique, called spatially resolved omics, that aims to apply cell biology methods in a novel way to visualise – at the level of an individual cell and single molecules – the relationship between where RNA (ribonucleic acid) is located in a cell and where proteins from that RNA are located. RNA is a molecule (much like DNA) that carries code (‘copied’ from DNA) dictating how proteins are constructed (translated).

If they are successful, the researchers’ new technique will help to quantitatively answer questions like: Once RNA has been made, where does it go in the cell? Where in the cell are proteins made? Do they move once they are made and, if so, where to? In what quantities do they collect?

“The Human Cell Atlas is not only going to revolutionise the way we see human biology, but it’s also going to revolutionise medicine,” said Prof Mhlanga. “It’s an opportunity for Africa to participate in high-impact research – a region that normally isn’t involved in this type of work. It’s a way to make scientific knowledge creation, and access to it, more equitable.”

“This grant is another step in my personal journey to make an impact and contribute positively to developing basic scientific research and knowledge creation in South Africa,” concluded Prof Mhlanga.

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