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Immune cell atlas across 16 tissues created by University of Cambridge and Wellcome Sanger Institute



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A genetic map of previously underexplored immune cell populations has been created by the University of Cambridge, Wellcome Sanger Institute and collaborators.

The open-access atlas focuses on the under-studied immune cells within 16 tissues, rather than those circulating in our blood.

Developing immune cells (B cells) from prenatal gut tissue. Image: Chenqu Suo, Sophie Pritchard, Nadav Yayon, Wellcome Sanger Institute (56799345)
Developing immune cells (B cells) from prenatal gut tissue. Image: Chenqu Suo, Sophie Pritchard, Nadav Yayon, Wellcome Sanger Institute (56799345)

The work is part of the international Human Cell Atlas (HCA) consortium, which aims to map every cell type in the human body to aid our understanding of human health and disease.

Exploring the similarities and differences of the same types of immune cells across tissues could aid research into therapies that rely on producing or enhancing an immune response to fight disease, such as vaccines or anti-cancer treatments.

The work was one of three milestone collaborative papers published together in the journal Science this week on comprehensive cross-tissue cell atlases.

Dr Cecilia Domínguez Conde, co-first author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “We have created a novel catalogue of immune cells within the human body, allowing us to automatically identify cell types across multiple tissues. By using single-cell sequencing data we have been able to reveal around a hundred different kinds of immune cells including macrophages, B cells, and T cells, uncovering crucial information about how the immune system works. We would like to thank the donors and their families for making this research possible.”

Dr Joanne Jones, co-senior author from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge, said: “In this research, we not only identified distinct types of immune cells, we also found that certain immune cell types follow specific tissue distribution patterns. Understanding the varying behaviours of the same type of immune cell in multiple areas of the body can help inform research into disease and how treatments that target these cells might impact other tissues.”

Insights into immune system memory were gained by sequencing the antigen receptors found on T and B cells. This revealed the different states that T and B cells undergo if exposed to an antigen, such as those found on bacteria and viruses.

Dr Sarah Teichmann in front of the computer cluster at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Picture: Pari Naderi
Dr Sarah Teichmann in front of the computer cluster at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Picture: Pari Naderi

The atlas will aid future research and could help identify which immune cells would be useful to activate when designing therapeutics such as vaccination and immunotherapies, for infectious diseases or solid tumours.

Dr Sarah Teichmann from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, co-founder of the Human Cell Atlas, said: “Our multi-tissue immune cell atlas is a step towards understanding how the immune system functions throughout the entire body and is an important contribution towards the Human Cell Atlas. In addition to creating a new resource for researchers to classify different cell types, our work will have many translational implications, including serving as a framework for developing therapies to fight immune-related diseases and managing infections.”

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