Scientists create an atlas of human lung cells

A futuristic image of lungs

Almost five years ago, researchers from around the world flew to London to discuss how to map every cell in the human body. Their goal, similar to the Human Genome Project’s vision to unravel the human genome, is to create a library of cells to advance precision medicine research.

In 2020, a map of heart cells was created and has already helped researchers study heart failure and atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm. Now, an atlas of lung endothelial cells, cells that line the lungs, is complete. The findings appear in Circulation. To create this reference, researchers started with more than 15,000 cell samples from 73 people. This map will help scientists study how cells lining the lungs interact, which includes supporting structures for healthy blood flow to processes that sustain immune function. This reference model, open to the public, will also inform studies about conditions that affect the airways and lungs, ranging from pulmonary hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to COVID-19.

In a recent blog, Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIH, described how the ability to zoom into single cell interactions is helping researchers study severe COVID-19 infections. The goal here, like other research, is to create personalized ways to prevent and treat disease. Several NIH institutes, including the NHLBI, have supported research to create the Human Cell Atlas.