Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists are helping the National Institutes of Health build a 3D map of the human body showing how tissues differ on a cellular level and providing deep insights into the body’s inner workings.
The NIH today announced its first set of research funding awards for the Human BioMolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP). The NIH anticipates spending $54 million on HuBMAP over the next four years, pending available funds, including more than $2 million for the CMU scientists and their colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the U.K.
“This is really the next step in the Human Genome Project,” said Ziv Bar-Joseph, a professor of computational biology and machine learning in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Sciencewho will lead the CMU-based center. “Though the genome — the complete set of genes — is present in all cells, it’s clearly doing different things in different organs and tissues. The job now is to create a map that shows which genes and proteins are activated in each part of the body.”
HuBMAP will provide scientists with a deeper understanding of how the tens of trillions of cells that constitute the body are organized in tissues to carry out the daily processes that keep people alive and healthy. The organization, specialization and cooperation of different cells in each tissue have a profound effect on tissue growth, function and aging. The ability to detect subtle changes in the activity of individual immune cells, for instance, might provide an early warning of disease before symptoms are clinically detectable.
“We’re excited for HuBMAP to start its journey to expand our understanding of the principles of tissue organization,” said Dr. James Anderson, director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives. “We expect HuBMAP to provide a vital framework for global efforts to comprehensively understand the human body at a biomolecular level.”
While some of the HuBMAP research groups will generate new data on cell organization and variability for particular tissues or organs, the HuBMAP Computational Tools Center will focus on the computational methods necessary for processing massive amounts of raw data, constructing the high-resolution tissue maps and building an atlas of tissue maps.
“Building a high-resolution map of the cells within our bodies is a major challenge for both biologists and computer scientists, and will provide a huge payoff for our understanding of disease and aging,” said Andrew Moore, dean of CMU’s School of Computer Science. “I can’t think of a better team for making HuBMAP a reality than the group Ziv has assembled.”
Other key CMU participants include Robert F. Murphy, head of the Computational Biology Department, and Carl Kingsford and Jian Ma, associate professors of computational biology.
The center will have two co-principal investigators. One is Benedict Paten, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz, home of the UCSC Genome Browser —the most popular browser for genomic data. The other is Sarah Teichmann, head of cellular genetics at Wellcome Sanger Institute and co-chair of the organizing committee for the privately funded Human Cell Atlas, a project that is complementary to the public HuBMAP.
HuBMAP is funded by the NIH Common Fund, which addresses emerging scientific opportunities and high-priority challenges for the NIH. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases manage the program along with the Common Fund staff.