HuBMAP: Local Researchers Help Create “Google Maps Of Human Cells”

The NIH funds two local teams for the Human BioMolecular Atlas Program

Jennifer Bloodworth
September 27, 2018 - 11:48 am

NIH Common Fund


PITTSBURGH (NewsRadio 1020 KDKA) — The National Institutes of Health has awarded funding to Pittsburgh researchers to help map the human body at a cellular level.

The four-year $54 million Human BioMolecular Atlas Program — or HuBMAP — builds on the Human Genome Project that mapped human DNA makeup from a physical and functional standpoint.

“The goal now is basically to go from this one-dimensional map, this sequence of letters, to a three-dimensional which tells us not just what are the components but where they are used in the body,” Ziv Bar-Joseph explained.  

He’s a lead investigator in one of six HuBMAP computational teams and professor in the Computational Biology Department and the Machine Learning Department at the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science.

Bar-Joseph says HuBMAP aims to act as a “Google Maps for the human body.”  

“The end goal is a 3-D map that you’ll be able to navigate or at least zoom-in if you wish to specific locations.”

He says his team is actually teaming up with Google researchers.

Two of the six computational teams are in Pittsburgh. The other is the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, a joint venture between Carnegie Mellon and Pitt. Funding is through the NIH Common Fund.

Why computer scientists instead of biologists? Data, Bar-Joseph says.

Billions of data points have already been collected and logged, the challenge is how to turn that into a navigable map.

Not only are researchers looking to develop a coordinate system of locations of cells, but also their function within different tissue.

“[Each location has] millions or even billions of cells, but they also have a lot of different types of cells,” Bar-Joseph said. “And the goal is to characterize what each of these cells are doing, what are they using.”

Bar-Joseph says the implications are difficult to predict, similar to those of the Human Genome Project, but the HuBMAP could change medicine drastically.

Markers for disease could be pinpointed and evaluated more specifically. The Human Genome allowed for better preventative measures, but results can be limited in scope.

“We will be able to map different locations in the genome to different locations in the body.”

Tests such as prenatal screenings and biopsies could be compared to the HuBMAP reference based on healthy individuals to more accurately diagnose and treat ailments.

The one-dimensional Human Genome Project revolutionized science and health care in unimaginable ways — and it’s about to be translated into three dimensions.

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