Shalom Life | July 05, 2015

Single Cells are the "Ultimate Anatomy" and will Revolutionize Medicine

Eric Lander, father of the Human Genome Project, believes looking at single cells is the medicine of the future

By: B. Shane Morganstein

Published: July 4th, 2015 in Health » Israel

Photo: Genomics - the single life


Eric Lander, mathematician, biologist, and one of the fathers of the human genome project, has returned to Israel once again.

Lander, in Israel for the third of his Broad Institute's annual conferences, excitedly reported the "amazing" pace at which science has moved since his last visit to the Holy Land. On his previous visit, Lander described the Human Genome Project as a human "parts list," containing all of the components that interact to create us. Now, explains Lander, the new challenge is to study single cells, in order to decipher the "wiring diagram" that elucidates the ways in which the different components of the human genome interact.

As the Times of Israel reports, Lander believes that the study of single cells will be "the new genomics," due to their key role in understanding what happens in humans at the most fundamental biological level. The exploration of these cells can not only provide us with a better understanding of how humans function, but also offer potential benefits for understanding and treating the diseases that afflict the human race.

Lander, now 58, is the founder of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, an organization that is devoted to using research from the Human Genome Project in medicine. Returning to Israel for the "Third Annual Broad-Israel Science Foundation (ISF) Cell Circuits Symposium," Lander hopes to capitalize on a strong Israeli scientific community that is interested in combining biology with information technology.

The partnership between the Broad Institute and Israel encourages collaboration, and encourages joint trailblazing in the fields of biology, chemistry, and IT. The eventual goal of these collaborative efforts would be to tackle biological problems afflicting humanity today, including the treatment of diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and more.

The Israeli-Broad partnership works particularly well due to Israel's strong information technology and bio-science communities. "Israel is such an intersection of those skill sets," he said.

Lander is most amazed with the progress made since his last visit to Israel. As recently as two years ago, scientists had only what could be considered a "a pixelated, low-resolution image" of our cell structure, and lacked a broader understanding of how many cells there are in the human body, what each of them does, and how they interact.

Describing the older understanding as "a kind of blended big picture, a smoothie," Lander thinks that, "Now, because of new laboratory techniques and maths and advances in DNA sequencing, we have the ability to study single cells." To put this in perspective, Lander recalled research into the cells of the eye. "Folks spent 40 years working to identify the cells of the retina, the back of an eye. Now, you can do that in an afternoon."

"The ability to do single-cell analysis, to get the identities and states of each of the cells, is the final revolution in this field. It is the equivalent of an amazing new microscope," gleamed Lander.

Another example - consider the definition of a tumor. Scientists struggled for years trying to identify common features of tumors, and how best to tackle treating the cancerous welts. "Now we can see the commonality, the types of cells, the proportions, the logic. This has major implications for our health," explained Lander.

"You want to kill a tumor? Well maybe our treatments work on one type of cell. We were blind to that. Now we can test a treatment on the few different types of cells."

This new method of identification and analysis gives scientists an unprecedented level of specificity when analyzing diseases. "Imagine medicine before gross anatomy," began Lander. "Then comes anatomy, and you can describe the organs of the body. You can see something problematic, say, in the lung, or in the heart. Well, this is the ultimate anatomy. It will penetrate every type of medicine."

Another area experiencing similarly rapid progress is that of eugenics, or the analysis of genes. The ability to "precisely edit" a sequence of genes gives scientists great power in discovering which diseases are affected by which genes. Such an ability had not existed until two years ago, when Feng Zhang, a researcher at Broad, created the technology to allow scientists to break a sequence in any place, thereby allowing them to be edited.

Already this editing power is being utilized for the benefit of man. An Israeli researcher at Broad has used the technology to edit 20,000 genes and discover which of the genes are essential to certain types of cancer, essentially revealing their weak-point. This technology could also potentially be used to edit the genes of humans, making us immune to disease, and increasing our strength and intelligence.

However, Lander is somewhat opposed to tampering with genes. "I'm not sure it's a good idea. Eugenics hasn't worked out too well for society. Moreover, changing DNA for one purpose can have unexpected bad consequences."

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