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NIH Funds $54M Project to Build Detailed Map of Cells Within Human Body

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The National Institutes of Health said today that it has issued the first set of research funding awards for its Human BioMolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP) to develop an open, global framework supporting efforts to build a map of cells within the adult human body. The HuBMAP awards total $54 million over the next four years, pending available funds.

The adult human body is composed of tens of trillions of cells carefully organized in tissues to carry out the daily processes to keep us alive and healthy. The organization, specialization, and cooperation of different cells within each tissue have a profound impact on tissue growth, function, aging, and the emergence of disease, the NIH said. But understanding important high-resolution features of cells in tissues remains a challenge.

The agency does not expect that HuBMAP will conclude with a map of the entire body, but rather anticipates that the project will provide a framework for more complete mapping and will make data available to the research community for further study.

Through the research awards, HuBMAP investigators will generate, standardize, and validate extensive data sets on cell organization and variability using existing technologies; develop new tools and techniques to construct high-resolution tissue maps; and will coordinate program activities, manage HuBMAP data, and build an atlas of tissue maps.

"We're excited for HuBMAP to start its journey to expand our understanding of the principles of tissue organization," James Anderson, director of the NIH's division of program coordination, planning, and strategic initiatives, said in a statement. "We expect HuBMAP to provide a vital framework for global efforts to comprehensively understand the human body at a biomolecular level."

The program has four stages: a setup phase in 2018, a scale-up phase from 2019 to 2021, a production phase from 2022 to 2024, and a transition phase in 2025. All activities will depend on the availability of funds, the NIH noted.

There are also four research initiatives: technology development; tissue mapping centers; HuBMAP integration, visualization, and engagement (HIVE); and demonstration projects.  

Technology development is broken up into transformative technology development and rapid technology integration. The former is a set of initiatives, the first of which will be issued this year, which seek to establish proof of principle and validation of the next generation of tools, techniques, and methods that will be foundational for mapping the human body with micron resolution, the NIH said.

Rapid technology integration refers to a set of initiatives which will start in 2019 and which is focused on integration of promising imaging and omics technologies into HuBMAP that have the potential to enhance data collection and validation during the program, and expanding throughput, multiplexing, or discrimination of different classes of biomolecules, the agency added.

The tissue mapping centers — which will be initially funded this year — will build, benchmark, standardize, validate, and generate extensive data from high-content, high-throughput imaging and omics technologies to produce 3D human tissue maps with high spatial resolution. Centers will be expected to integrate and optimize all parts of the data generation pipeline, from tissue collection and preservation to data integration, analysis, and interpretation, the NIH said.

The HIVE multi-component collaboratory, meanwhile, will be responsible for managing the data generated by the consortium, coordinating internal and external consortium activities, developing novel tools for visualizing, searching, and modelling data, and building an atlas of tissue maps.

Finally, the demonstration projects, which are slated to start halfway through the program, are meant to demonstrate how HuBMAP resources can be used to build better statistical and analytic tools and models of cellular organization and communication in tissues, according to the NIH.

In this $54 million tranche of funding, the NIH has awarded grants to the California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Purdue University, and Harvard University as transformative technology development centers; to the University of Florida, the California Institute of Technology, Vanderbilt University, Stanford, and the University of California, San Diego as tissue mapping centers; and to Carnegie-Mellon University, Indiana University Bloomington, Harvard Medical School, University of South Dakota, and the New York Genome Center as HIVE centers.

HuBMAP isn't the only project that's aiming to map every cell in the human body. In 2016, researchers from the Broad Institute and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute launched the Human Cell Atlas Initiative with the goal of creating an atlas of all human cell types, using single-cell genomics approaches to produce 3D maps of how different cells function together and how changes in these networks can lead to disease.

That initiative, which is planning to produce a first draft by 2022, recently procuded a high-profile study of mouse tracheal epithelial cells and described a rare new cell type referred to as Foxi1+ pulmonary ionocytes.