Scientists have created the first map of every cell in a pair of human lungs, giving hope of better treatment for millions of asthma sufferers.
The revolutionary ‘atlas’ will transform knowledge of the disease, according to the researchers who created it.
By comparing the cells to those of people with healthy lungs, scientists can better understand what causes the symptoms of asthma including coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
It has already led to an entirely new discovery of how cells produce more mucus in asthmatics.
British scientists have created the first map of every cell in human lungs, giving hope of better treatment for millions of asthma sufferers
Asthma affected more than 350million people worldwide in 2015. In the UK it blights the lives of one in 11 children (1.1million) and one in 12 adults (4.3million).
Study first author Dr Felipe Vieira Braga, of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, Cambridge, said: ‘We have generated a detailed anatomical map of the respiratory airways, producing the first draft human lung cell atlas from both normal and asthmatic people.
‘This has given us a better definition of the cell types in asthmatic lungs, and allowed us to discover an entirely new cell state in asthmatic patients that produces mucus.’
The mapping of the lungs is part of a global project that started in 2016 called the Human Cell Atlas Initiative.
Over the next decade the team plans to discover how many cells people have, in their entire bodies, the different types and what they do in each organ.
WHAT IS ASTHMA?
Asthma is a common but incurable condition which affects the small tubes inside the lungs.
It can cause them to become inflamed, or swollen, which restricts the airways and makes it harder to breathe.
The condition affects people of all ages and often starts in childhood. Symptoms may improve or even go away as children grow older, but can return in adulthood.
Symptoms include wheezing, breathlessness, a tight chest and coughing, and these may get worse during an asthma attack.
Treatment usually involves medication which is inhaled to calm down the lungs.
Triggers for the condition include allergies, dust, air pollution, exercise and infections such as cold or flu.
If you think you or your child has asthma you should visit a doctor, because it can develop into more serious complications like fatigue or lung infections.
Cells are fundamental to understanding the biology of good health and illnesses, so it’s hoped the project will boost research into illnesses ranging from asthma to dementia, heart disease and cancer.
The first findings, published in the journal Nature Medicine, identify how lung cells communicate.
Asthma is caused by swelling of the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs, making it hard for someone to get enough oxygen.
While it is often manageable with drugs, it can cause ongoing problems including the risk of severe, life-threatening attacks.
Shedding light between the differences between the cells of healthy and asthmatic lungs will open the doors to more effective therapies.
The researchers looked at more than 36,000 individual cells from the nasal area and three different areas of the lung.
Technological advances in a field known as single-cell genomics means researchers can now separate individual cells from different tissues and organs, analyse their properties and measure and describe which molecules are produced in each.
The team used samples from 17 people to identify specific genes that were active in each cell.
The researchers looked at more than 36,000 individual cells from the nasal area and three different areas of the lung. Pictured, an airway wall biopsy from a patient with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder – a group of lung conditions
The mapping of the organ is part of a global project that started in 2016 called the Human Cell Atlas Initiative. Scientists are discovering every cell and its functions to understand the biology of all health and disease. Pictured, a diagram of how it could help diagnostics
The researchers then detected the different cell types and activities in samples from six asthma patients – comparing them to normal lungs.
This identified clear differences. One symptom of asthma, for instance, is an over-production of mucus. But not all the cells responsible for this were known.
WHAT IS THE HUMAN ATLAS?
Researchers plan to map out and describe every cell in the human body.
This will chart the types and properties of all human cells across all tissues and organs and build a reference map of the healthy human body.
Doing this will likely take more than a decade to complete, but could vastly improve scientists’ understanding of human development and disease.
It’s hoped the project will boost research into illnesses ranging from asthma to dementia, heart disease and cancer.
Studying all the cells in the human body is an enormous endeavour. Current estimates suggest that an average human being is made of at least 37.2 trillion cells.
The researchers unearthed a phenomenon called the ‘muco-cilliated state’ in asthmatic lungs that had not been seen before.
The study also found the diseased lungs had many more asthma inducing inflammatory immune cells called Th2 cells.
‘We already knew inflammatory Th2 cells played a role in asthma – but only now do we see how great that influence is,’ senior author Dr Martijn Nawijn, of University Medical Centre Groningen in The Netherlands, said.
‘In normal people, all kinds of cells communicate with each other in order to keep the airways functioning well.
‘But in asthma patients, almost all of those interactions are lost. Instead of a network of interactions, in asthma the inflammatory cells seem to completely dominate the communication in the airways.’
This could lead to drugs that prevent the cells from responding to the inflammatory signals – and help restore normal lung function.
Senior author Dr Sarah Teichmann, of the Wellcome Sanger Institute and co-chair of the Human Cell Atlas Organising Committee, said: ‘The lung cell atlas will provide a great resource for further lung research and we hope that it will enable the identification of potential new therapeutic targets for asthma relief.’
Until recently, scientific knowledge of cells has been limited to what can be found out by looking at them under microscopes.
The researchers believe a successful description of all the cells in the healthy human body will impact almost every aspect of biology and medicine in the decades to come.