Scientists create an atlas of human heart cells

A close view of heart cells collected through the Human Cell Atlas.
Credit: Daniel Reichart/Harvard Medical School

An atlas of human heart cells is now available to help scientists study the molecular underpinnings of cardiovascular health and heart disease. The global research initiative, supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, supports scientists along a multi-year journey to map every cell in the human body, similar to unraveling the human genome. 

After analyzing nearly half a million heart cells provided by 14 heart donors, researchers created the
Heart Cell Atlas and published their findings in Nature. The human heart map details cells, cell subtypes, and genes expressed within cells in six regions of the heart.

As researchers expand the heart map, they envision a framework will emerge for studying anatomical differences in cardiac function between men and women, children and adults, and among people of different ancestral backgrounds. For example, a higher proportion of cells in the left ventricle and right ventricle walls of the hearts of women may inform research about differences in stroke and cardiovascular disease rates among women and men. The researchers also found regions of the heart enriched for ACE2 expression, the cellular door for SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19.

The Heart Cell Atlas will support basic and translational research to help scientists personalize medicine, target therapies, and follow regenerative processes, such as heart tissue repair. Epigenetic research, a field that studies how environmental factors, such as exercise, age, and stress, pair with DNA to influence health, will also benefit from having a guide to gene expression within heart cells. 

Media Coverage

The Harvard Gazette
BBC Science Focus Magazine
Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News
Harvard Medical School
Howard Hughes Medical Institute