The ambitious quest to map every cell in our body

So to tackle the problem, a consortium of scientists (as part of the Human Cell Atlas project) analyzed around 70,000 cells from the placenta and uterine lining of women who had terminated their pregnancy between six and 14 weeks.

The placenta is the organ through which nutrients and gases travel back and forth between the mother and the developing baby. It was once thought that the mother’s immune system should be turned off in the lining of the womb where the placenta embeds, so that the placenta and fetus are not attacked for being “foreign” (like an unmatched transplant) because of half the fetus. genes from the father. But this view turned out to be wrong – or too simple at the very least.

We now know from a variety of experiments, including this analysis, that in the womb the activity of the mother’s immune cells is somewhat reduced, presumably to prevent an adverse reaction against the cells of the fetus , but the immune system is not deactivated. Instead, the immune cells we encountered earlier, the natural killer cells, well known for killing infected cells or cancerous cells, take on a completely different and more constructive job in the womb: helping to build the placenta. .

What’s more, the scientists’ analysis of 70,000 cells found that all sorts of other immune cells are also important in building a placenta. What they all do, however, is still unclear – it’s at the limit of what we know.

Muzlifah Haniffa, professor of dermatology and immunology at Wellcome Sanger Institute and Newcastle University Biosciences Institute in the UK is one of three women who led this analysis. Haniffa sees the body from two angles almost daily: as a computer analysis of cells on a screen and as patients walking through the door. Both as stones and as the arch they form.

At present, these two points of view do not easily agree. But in time they will. In the future, Haniffa thinks the tools doctors use every day — like a stethoscope to listen to a person’s lungs or a simple blood count — will be replaced by instruments that profile the cells in our bodies. Algorithms will analyze the results, clarify the underlying problem and predict the best treatment. Other doctors agree with her – this has to be what’s to come in the future of health care.

What could this mean for you

Babies are now routinely born through IVF, organ transplants have become commonplace and cancer survival rates in the UK have roughly doubled in recent years – but all of these achievements pale in comparison to what’s been happening. comes from it.

As I wrote in The Secret Body, advances in human biology are accelerating at an unprecedented rate – not only through the Human Cell Atlas project, but in many other areas as well. Analysis of our genes presents a new understanding of our differences – the actions of brain cells give clues to how our minds work; new structures found inside our cells lead to new ideas for medicine; the proteins and other molecules circulating in our blood alter our view of mental health.

Of course, all science has an ever-increasing impact on our lives, but nothing affects us as deeply or directly as new revelations about the human body. On the horizon now, from all of this research, are entirely new ways to define, track, and manipulate health.