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Flemish institute joins project to track all cells in the human body

20:00 02/04/2018

From Flanders Today: Two researchers with Flanders’ life sciences research institute VIB have joined the FET-Flag LifeTime project, a European consortium tasked with developing and applying new technologies to profile virtually every cell in the human body. It is the first time such a project has been attempted.

Professors Stein Aerts and Chris Marine are part of the 60-strong team of European scientists. The team with also track how cells change as people age and with the onset of certain diseases. The ultimate goal is to develop therapies to intervene when cellular changes take place.

The success of the project relies heavily on the development of technology development. The scientists need new ways to extract DNA, RNA and proteins from individual cells.

They are working on lab-on-a-chip and microfluidic devices that can generate nanolitre droplets to capture a single cell, barcode it and amplify its DNA and RNA.

Recording the location and all biological parameters of each individual cell within a tissue will generate a gigantic amount of data. It is up to creative bioinformaticians such as Aerts and his team to develop novel approaches to extract useful information from this avalanche of data.

Exploiting the single-cell method

“We want to invent new bioinformatics and algorithms to analyse and model which genes are active in individual cells,” he says. “A variety of genome-wide information layers or ‘omics’ data will be generated for millions, perhaps even billions, of single cells. We’ll need smart ways of making sense of this data if we want to use it to make predictions for patients, including disease outcome, therapy choice or prognosis.”

This is where cancer experts such as Marine come in. His team will exploit the single-cell methods to profile large numbers of single cells from healthy tissues and tumours. Since these individual cells can be studied over time, the researchers can track how cells evolve during the progression of a disease and in response to specific treatments.

“We have so far only performed a handful of single-cell experiments in our lab,” he says. But it was immediately obvious to us that the single-cell resolution is a revolution. It is creating a real shift in our understanding of biology and disease. If combined with the right models and tools, this technology will simply revolutionise medicine.”