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Millions of Single-Cell Analyses Yield Most Comprehensive Human Cell Atlas Yet

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A field of playing cards showing different body tissues

There are 37 trillion or so cells in our bodies that work together to give us life. But it may surprise you that we still haven’t put a good number on how many distinct cell types there are within those trillions of cells.

That’s why in 2016, a team of researchers from around the globe launched a historic project called the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) consortium to identify and define the hundreds of presumed distinct cell types in our bodies. Knowing where each cell type resides in the body, and which genes each one turns on or off to create its own unique molecular identity, will revolutionize our studies of human biology and medicine across the board.

Since its launch, the HCA has progressed rapidly. In fact, it has already reached an important milestone with the recent publication in the journal Science of four studies that, together, comprise the first multi-tissue drafts of the human cell atlas. This draft, based on analyses of millions of cells, defines more than 500 different cell types in more than 30 human tissues. A second draft, with even finer definition, is already in the works.

Making the HCA possible are recent technological advances in RNA sequencing. RNA sequencing is a topic that’s been mentioned frequently on this blog in a range of research areas, from neuroscience to skin rashes. Researchers use it to detect and analyze all the messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules in a biological sample, in this case individual human cells from a wide range of tissues, organs, and individuals who voluntarily donated their tissues.

By quantifying these RNA messages, researchers can capture the thousands of genes that any given cell actively expresses at any one time. These precise gene expression profiles can be used to catalogue cells from throughout the body and understand the important similarities and differences among them.

In one of the published studies, funded in part by the NIH, a team co-led by Aviv Regev, a founding co-chair of the consortium at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA, established a framework for multi-tissue human cell atlases [1]. (Regev is now on leave from the Broad Institute and MIT and has recently moved to Genentech Research and Early Development, South San Francisco, CA.)

Among its many advances, Regev’s team optimized single-cell RNA sequencing for use on cell nuclei isolated from frozen tissue. This technological advance paved the way for single-cell analyses of the vast numbers of samples that are stored in research collections and freezers all around the world.

Using their new pipeline, Regev and team built an atlas including more than 200,000 single-cell RNA sequence profiles from eight tissue types collected from 16 individuals. These samples were archived earlier by NIH’s Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project. The team’s data revealed unexpected differences among cell types but surprising similarities, too.

For example, they found that genetic profiles seen in muscle cells were also present in connective tissue cells in the lungs. Using novel machine learning approaches to help make sense of their data, they’ve linked the cells in their atlases with thousands of genetic diseases and traits to identify cell types and genetic profiles that may contribute to a wide range of human conditions.

By cross-referencing 6,000 genes previously implicated in causing specific genetic disorders with their single-cell genetic profiles, they identified new cell types that may play unexpected roles. For instance, they found some non-muscle cells that may play a role in muscular dystrophy, a group of conditions in which muscles progressively weaken. More research will be needed to make sense of these fascinating, but vital, discoveries.

The team also compared genes that are more active in specific cell types to genes with previously identified links to more complex conditions. Again, their data surprised them. They identified new cell types that may play a role in conditions such as heart disease and inflammatory bowel disease.

Two of the other papers, one of which was funded in part by NIH, explored the immune system, especially the similarities and differences among immune cells that reside in specific tissues, such as scavenging macrophages [2,3] This is a critical area of study. Most of our understanding of the immune system comes from immune cells that circulate in the bloodstream, not these resident macrophages and other immune cells.

These immune cell atlases, which are still first drafts, already provide an invaluable resource toward designing new treatments to bolster immune responses, such as vaccines and anti-cancer treatments. They also may have implications for understanding what goes wrong in various autoimmune conditions.

Scientists have been working for more than 150 years to characterize the trillions of cells in our bodies. Thanks to this timely effort and its advances in describing and cataloguing cell types, we now have a much better foundation for understanding these fundamental units of the human body.

But the latest data are just the tip of the iceberg, with vast flows of biological information from throughout the human body surely to be released in the years ahead. And while consortium members continue making history, their hard work to date is freely available to the scientific community to explore critical biological questions with far-reaching implications for human health and disease.

References:

[1] Single-nucleus cross-tissue molecular reference maps toward understanding disease gene function. Eraslan G, Drokhlyansky E, Anand S, Fiskin E, Subramanian A, Segrè AV, Aguet F, Rozenblatt-Rosen O, Ardlie KG, Regev A, et al. Science. 2022 May 13;376(6594):eabl4290.

[2] Cross-tissue immune cell analysis reveals tissue-specific features in humans. Domínguez Conde C, Xu C, Jarvis LB, Rainbow DB, Farber DL, Saeb-Parsy K, Jones JL,Teichmann SA, et al. Science. 2022 May 13;376(6594):eabl5197.

[3] Mapping the developing human immune system across organs. Suo C, Dann E, Goh I, Jardine L, Marioni JC, Clatworthy MR, Haniffa M, Teichmann SA, et al. Science. 2022 May 12:eabo0510.

Links:

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Studying Cells (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Human Cell Atlas

Regev Lab (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Eye Institute


A More Precise Way to Knock Out Skin Rashes

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A man scratches a rash on his arm, an immune cell zooms from the rash. Single-cell RNA data leads to Diagnosis

The NIH is committed to building a new era in medicine in which the delivery of health care is tailored specifically to the individual person, not the hypothetical average patient as is now often the case. This new era of “precision medicine” will transform care for many life-threatening diseases, including cancer and chronic kidney disease. But what about non-life-threatening conditions, like the aggravating rash on your skin that just won’t go away?

Recently, researchers published a proof-of-principle paper in the journal Science Immunology demonstrating just how precision medicine for inflammatory skin rashes might work [1]. While more research is needed to build out and further refine the approach, the researchers show it’s now technologically possible to extract immune cells from a patient’s rash, read each cell’s exact inflammatory features, and relatively quickly match them online to the right anti-inflammatory treatment to stop the rash.

The work comes from a NIH-funded team led by Jeffrey Cheng and Raymond Cho, University of California, San Francisco. The researchers focused their attention on two inflammatory skin conditions: atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema, which flares up periodically to make skin red and itchy, and psoriasis vulgaris. Psoriasis causes skin cells to build up and form a scaly rash and dry, itchy patches. Together, atopic dermatitis and psoriasis vulgaris affect about 10 percent of U.S. adults.

While the rashes caused by the two conditions can sometimes look similar, they are driven by different sets of immune cells and underlying inflammatory responses. For that reason, distinct biologic therapies, based on antibodies and proteins made from living cells, are now available to target and modify the specific immune pathways underlying each condition.

While biologic therapies represent a major treatment advance for these and other inflammatory conditions, they can miss their targets. Indeed, up to half of patients don’t improve substantially on biologics. Part of the reason for that lack of improvement is because doctors don’t have the tools they need to make firm diagnoses based on what precisely is going on in the skin at the molecular and cellular levels.

To learn more in the new study, the researchers isolated immune cells, focusing primarily on T cells, from the skin of 31 volunteers. They then sequenced the RNA of each cell to provide a telltale portrait of its genomic features. This “single-cell analysis” allowed them to capture high-resolution portraits of 41 different immune cell types found in individual skin samples. That’s important because it offers a much more detailed understanding of changes in the behavior of various immune cells that might have been missed in studies focused on larger groupings of skin cells, representing mixtures of various cell types.

Of the 31 volunteers, seven had atopic dermatitis and eight had psoriasis vulgaris. Three others were diagnosed with other skin conditions, while six had an indeterminate rash with features of both atopic dermatitis and psoriasis vulgaris. Seven others were healthy controls.

The team produced molecular signatures of the immune cells. The researchers then compared the signatures from the hard-to-diagnose rashes to those of confirmed cases of atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. They wanted to see if the signatures could help to reach clearer diagnoses.

The signatures revealed common immunological features as well as underlying differences. Importantly, the researchers found that the signatures allowed them to move forward and classify the indeterminate rashes. The rashes also responded to biologic therapies corresponding to the individuals’ new diagnoses.

Already, the work has identified molecules that help to define major classes of human inflammatory skin diseases. The team has also developed computer tools to help classify rashes in many other cases where the diagnosis is otherwise uncertain.

In fact, the researchers have launched a pioneering website called RashX. It is enabling practicing dermatologists and researchers around the world to submit their single-cell RNA data from their difficult cases. Such analyses are now being done at a small, but growing, number of academic medical centers.

While precision medicine for skin rashes has a long way to go yet before reaching most clinics, the UCSF team is working diligently to ensure its arrival as soon as scientifically possible. Indeed, their new data represent the beginnings of an openly available inflammatory skin disease resource. They ultimately hope to generate a standardized framework to link molecular features to disease prognosis and drug response based on data collected from clinical centers worldwide. It’s a major effort, but one that promises to improve the diagnosis and treatment of many more unusual and long-lasting rashes, both now and into the future.

Reference:

[1] Classification of human chronic inflammatory skin disease based on single-cell immune profiling. Liu Y, Wang H, Taylor M, Cook C, Martínez-Berdeja A, North JP, Harirchian P, Hailer AA, Zhao Z, Ghadially R, Ricardo-Gonzalez RR, Grekin RC, Mauro TM, Kim E, Choi J, Purdom E, Cho RJ, Cheng JB. Sci Immunol. 2022 Apr 15;7(70):eabl9165. {Epub ahead of publication]

Links:

The Promise of Precision Medicine (NIH)

Atopic Dermatitis (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases /NIH)

Psoriasis (NIAMS/NIH)

RashX (University of California, San Francisco)

Raymond Cho (UCSF)

Jeffrey Cheng (UCSF)

NIH Support: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


Tuberculosis: An Ancient Disease in Need of Modern Scientific Tools

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Two men, one holds an award
Caption: Here I am with Paul Farmer, who was a strong voice for improving TB prevention and treatments in resource-scarce settings, when he came to NIH in 2007 to deliver my institute’s James C. Hill Memorial Lecture. Credit: NIH

Although COVID-19 has dominated our attention for the past two years, tuberculosis (TB), an ancient scourge, remains a dominating infectious disease globally, with an estimated 10 million new cases and more than 1.3 million deaths in 2020. TB disproportionately afflicts the poor and has long been the leading cause of death in people living with HIV.

Unfortunately, during the global COVID-19 pandemic, recent gains in TB control have been stalled or reversed. We’ve seen a massive drop in new TB diagnoses, reflecting poor access to care and an uptick in deaths in 2020 [1].

We are fighting TB with an armory of old weapons inferior to those we have for COVID-19. The Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine, the world’s only licensed TB vaccine, has been in use for more than 100 years. While BCG is somewhat effective at preventing TB meningitis in children, it provides more limited durable protection against pulmonary TB in children and adults. More effective vaccination strategies to prevent infection and disease, decrease relapse rates, and shorten durations of treatment are desperately needed to reduce the terrible global burden of TB.

In this regard, over the past five years, several exciting research advances have generated new optimism in the field of TB vaccinology. Non-human primate studies conducted at my National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ (NIAID) Vaccine Research Center and other NIAID-funded laboratories have demonstrated that effective immunity against infection is achievable and that administering BCG intravenously, rather than under the skin as it currently is given, is highly protective [2].

Results from a phase 2 trial testing BCG revaccination in adolescents at high risk of TB infection suggested this approach could help prevent TB [3]. In addition, a phase 2 trial of an experimental TB vaccine based on the recombinant protein M72 and an immune-priming adjuvant, AS01, also showed promise in preventing active TB disease in latently infected adults [4].

Both candidates are now moving on to phase 3 efficacy trials. The encouraging results of these trials, combined with nine other candidates currently in phase 2 or 3 studies [5], offer new hope that improved vaccines may be on the horizon. The NIAID is working with a team of other funders and investigators to analyze the correlates of protection from these studies to inform future TB vaccine development.

Even with these exciting developments, it is critical to accelerate our efforts to enhance and diversify the TB vaccine pipeline by addressing persistent basic and translational research gaps. To this end, NIAID has several new programs. The Immune Protection Against Mtb Centers are taking a multidisciplinary approach to integrate animal and human data to gain a comprehensive understanding of the immune responses required to prevent TB infection and disease.

This spring, NIAID will fund awards under the Innovation for TB Vaccine Discovery program that will focus on the discovery and early evaluation of novel TB vaccine candidates with the goal of diversifying the TB vaccine pipeline. Later this year, the Advancing Vaccine Adjuvant Research for TB program will systematically assess combinations of TB immunogens and adjuvants. Finally, NIAID’s well-established clinical trials networks are planning two new clinical trials of TB vaccine candidates.

As we look to the future, we must apply the lessons learned in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines to longstanding public health challenges such as TB. COVID-19 vaccine development was hugely successful due to the use of novel vaccine platforms, structure-based vaccine design, community engagement for rapid clinical trial enrollment, real-time data sharing with key stakeholders, and innovative trial designs.

However, critical gaps remain in our armamentarium. These include the harnessing the immunology of the tissues that line the respiratory tract to design vaccines more adept at blocking initial infection and transmission, employing thermostable formulations and novel delivery systems for resource-limited settings, and crafting effective messaging around vaccines for different populations.

As we work to develop better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat TB, we will do well to remember the great public health icon, Paul Farmer, who tragically passed away earlier this year at a much too young age. Paul witnessed firsthand the devastating consequences of TB and its drug resistant forms in Haiti, Peru, and other parts of the world.

In addition to leading efforts to improve how TB is treated, Paul provided direct patient care in underserved communities and demanded that the world do more to meet their needs. As we honor Paul’s legacy, let us accelerate our efforts to find better tools to fight TB and other diseases of global health importance that exact a disproportionate toll among the poor and underserved.

References:

[1] Global tuberculosis report 2021. WHO. October 14, 2021.

[2] Prevention of tuberculosis in macaques after intravenous BCG immunization. Darrah PA, Zeppa JJ, Maiello P, Hackney JA, Wadsworth MH,. Hughes TK, Pokkali S, Swanson PA, Grant NL, Rodgers MA, Kamath M, Causgrove CM, Laddy DJ, Bonavia A, Casimiro D, Lin PL, Klein E, White AG, Scanga CA, Shalek AK, Roederer M, Flynn JL, and Seder RA. Nature. 2020 Jan 1; 577: 95–102.

[3] Prevention of M. tuberculosis Infection with H4:IC31 vaccine or BCG revaccination. Nemes E, Geldenhuys H, Rozot V, Rutkowski KT, Ratangee F,Bilek N., Mabwe S, Makhethe L, Erasmus M, Toefy A, Mulenga H, Hanekom WA, et al. N Engl J Med 2018; 379:138-149.

[4] Final analysis of a trial of M72/AS01E vaccine to prevent tuberculosis. Tait DR, Hatherill M, Van Der Meeren O, Ginsberg AM, Van Brakel E, Salaun B, Scriba TJ, Akite EJ, Ayles HM, et al.

[5] Pipeline Report 2021: Tuberculosis Vaccines. TAG. October 2021.

Links:

Tuberculosis (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

NIAID Strategic Plan for Tuberculosis Research

Immune Mechanisms of Protection Against Mycobacterium tuberculosis Centers (IMPAc-TB) (NIAID)

Partners in Health (Boston, MA)

[Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the seventh in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.]


Teaching the Immune System to Attack Cancer with Greater Precision

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Needle in a vial. Cancer cell in the background
Credit: PhotobyTawat/Shutterstock/Tom Deerink, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIH

To protect humans from COVID-19, the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines program human cells to translate the injected synthetic messenger RNA into the coronavirus spike protein, which then primes the immune system to arm itself against future appearances of that protein. It turns out that the immune system can also be trained to spot and attack distinctive proteins on cancer cells, killing them and leaving healthy cells potentially untouched.

While these precision cancer vaccines remain experimental, researchers continue to make basic discoveries that move the field forward. That includes a recent NIH-funded study in mice that helps to refine the selection of protein targets on tumors as a way to boost the immune response [1]. To enable this boost, the researchers first had to discover a possible solution to a longstanding challenge in developing precision cancer vaccines: T cell exhaustion.

The term refers to the immune system’s complement of T cells and their capacity to learn to recognize foreign proteins, also known as neoantigens, and attack them on cancer cells to shrink tumors. But these responding T cells can exhaust themselves attacking tumors, limiting the immune response and making its benefits short-lived.

In this latest study, published in the journal Cell, Tyler Jacks and Megan Burger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, help to explain this phenomenon of T cell exhaustion. The researchers found in mice with lung tumors that the immune system initially responds as it should. It produces lots of T cells that target many different cancer-specific proteins.

Yet there’s a problem: various subsets of T cells get in each other’s way. They compete until, eventually, one of those subsets becomes the dominant T cell type. Even when those dominant T cells grow exhausted, they still remain in the tumor and keep out other T cells, which might otherwise attack different neoantigens in the cancer.

Building on this basic discovery, the researchers came up with a strategy for developing cancer vaccines that can “awaken” T cells and reinvigorate the body’s natural cancer-fighting abilities. The strategy might seem counterintuitive. The researchers vaccinated mice with neoantigens that provide a weak but encouraging signal to the immune cells responsible for presenting the distinctive cancer protein target, or antigen, to T cells. It’s those T cells that tend to get suppressed in competition with other T cells.

When the researchers vaccinated the mice with one of those neoantigens, the otherwise suppressed T cells grew in numbers and better targeted the tumor. What’s more, the tumors shrank by more than 25 percent on average.

Research on this new strategy remains in its early stages. The researchers hope to learn if this approach to cancer vaccines might work even better when used in combination with immunotherapy drugs, which unleash the immune system against cancer in other ways.

It’s also possible that the recent and revolutionary success of mRNA vaccines for preventing COVID-19 actually could help. An important advantage of mRNA is that it’s easy for researchers to synthesize once they know the specific nucleic acid sequence of a protein target, and they can even combine different mRNA sequences to make a multiplex vaccine that primes the immune system to recognize multiple neoantigens. Now that we’ve seen how well mRNA vaccines work to prompt a desired immune response against COVID-19, this same technology can be used to speed the development and testing of future vaccines, including those designed precisely to fight cancer.

Reference:

[1] Antigen dominance hierarchies shape TCF1+ progenitor CD8 T cell phenotypes in tumors. Burger ML, Cruz AM, Crossland GE, Gaglia G, Ritch CC, Blatt SE, Bhutkar A, Canner D, Kienka T, Tavana SZ, Barandiaran AL, Garmilla A, Schenkel JM, Hillman M, de Los Rios Kobara I, Li A, Jaeger AM, Hwang WL, Westcott PMK, Manos MP, Holovatska MM, Hodi FS, Regev A, Santagata S, Jacks T. Cell. 2021 Sep 16;184(19):4996-5014.e26.

Links:

Cancer Treatment Vaccines (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

The Jacks Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


The Hidden Beauty of Intestinal Villi

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Credit: Amy Engevik, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston.

The human small intestine, though modest in diameter and folded compactly to fit into the abdomen, is anything but small. It measures on average about 20 feet from end to end and plays a big role in the gastrointestinal tract, breaking down food and drink from the stomach to absorb the water and nutrients.

Also anything but small is the total surface area of the organ’s inner lining, where millions of U-shaped folds in the mucosal tissue triple the available space to absorb the water and nutrients that keep our bodies nourished. If these folds, packed with finger-like absorptive cells called villi, were flattened out, they would be the size of a tennis court!

That’s what makes this this microscopic image so interesting. It shows in cross section the symmetrical pattern of the villi (its cells outlined by yellow) that pack these folds. Each cell’s nucleus contains DNA (teal), and the villi themselves are fringed by thousands of tiny bristles, called microvilli (magenta), which are too small to see individually here. Collectively, microvilli make up an absorptive surface, called the brush border, where digested nutrients in the fluid passing through the intestine can enter cells via transport channels.

Amy Engevik, a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, took this snapshot to show what a healthy intestinal cellular landscape looks like in a young mouse. The Engevik lab studies the dynamic movement of ions, water, and proteins in the intestine—a process that goes wrong in humans born with a rare disorder called microvillus inclusion disease (MVID).

MVID causes chronic gastrointestinal problems in newborn babies, due to defects in a protein that transports various cellular components. Because they cannot properly absorb nutrition from food, these tiny patients require intravenous feeding almost immediately, which carries a high risk for sepsis and intestinal injury.

Engevik and her team study this disease using a mouse model that replicates many of the characteristics of the disorder in humans [1]. Interestingly, when Engevik gets together with her family, she isn’t the only one talking about MVID and villi. Her two sisters, Mindy and Kristen, also study the basic science of gastrointestinal disorders! Instead of sibling rivalry, though, this close alliance has strengthened the quality of her research, says Amy, who is the middle child.

Beyond advancing science and nurturing sisterhood in science, Engevik’s work also captured the fancy of the judges for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s annual BioArt Scientific Image and Video Competition. Her image was one of 10 winners announced in December 2020.

Because multiple models are useful for understanding fundamentals of diseases like MVID, Engevik has also developed a large-animal model (pig) that has many features of the human disease [2]. She hopes that her efforts will help to improve our understanding of MVID and other digestive diseases, as well as lead to new, potentially life-saving treatments for babies suffering from MVID.

References:

[1] Loss of MYO5B Leads to reductions in Na+ absorption with maintenance of CFTR-dependent Cl- secretion in enterocytes. Engevik AC, Kaji I, Engevik MA, Meyer AR, Weis VG, Goldstein A, Hess MW, Müller T, Koepsell H, Dudeja PK, Tyska M, Huber LA, Shub MD, Ameen N, Goldenring JR. Gastroenterology. 2018 Dec;155(6):1883-1897.e10.

[2] Editing myosin VB gene to create porcine model of microvillus inclusion disease, with microvillus-lined inclusions and alterations in sodium transporters. Engevik AC, Coutts AW, Kaji I, Rodriguez P, Ongaratto F, Saqui-Salces M, Medida RL, Meyer AR, Kolobova E, Engevik MA, Williams JA, Shub MD, Carlson DF, Melkamu T, Goldenring JR. Gastroenterology. 2020 Jun;158(8):2236-2249.e9.

Links:

Microvillus inclusion disease (Genetic and Rare Diseases Center/NIH)

Digestive Diseases (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Amy Engevik (Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston)

Podcast: A Tale of Three Sisters featuring Drs. Mindy, Amy, and Kristen Engevik (The Immunology Podcast, April 29, 2021)

BioArt Scientific Image and Video Competition (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


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