The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) latest foray into turning emerging technologies into useful data sets is focusing on how the body’s trillions of cells interconnect and interact. The Human BioMolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP) aims to describe the biochemical milieu and the locations of individual cells in the body’s major organs, researchers write this week in Nature. It uses technology heralded by Science as the 2018 Breakthrough of the Year.
The goal is to “establish a baseline of what constitutes a healthy system,” says HuBMAP grantee Julia Laskin, an analytical chemist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. That way, she says, researchers will be able to see what goes awry in disease.
Until recently, biomedical scientists had just a broad-brush view of how organs functioned. In particular, they had succeeded in getting only a sense of gene activity—when genes turn on and off—in specific tissues. Gene activity defines what a cell does. But organs consist of many kinds of cells, each with their own molecular profiles.