New initiative launched to support goals of Human Cell Atlas

Uri Laserson, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics and Genomics Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and collaborators have been awarded one of 85 grants announced today from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF (CZI), an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The CZI grants totaling $15 million over one year are dedicated to research projects aimed at building tools and technologies to support the goals of Human Cell Atlas, a global effort to map every type of cell in the human body as a resource for medical research. Dr. Laserson's team will be collaborating on the project with the research group of Anthony Joseph, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I am thrilled to welcome this distinguished group of grantees to the CZI family, and I am excited about how they will support the ambitious Human Cell Atlas effort," said Priscilla Chan, MD, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. "Working together and with our team of scientists and engineers, these partners will create new ways for scientists to use information about healthy and diseased cells. Their efforts will help to accelerate progress toward our goal of curing, preventing, or managing all diseases by the end of the century."

Because the Human Cell Atlas project will generate a large variety of molecular and imaging data across a wide range of modalities and spatial scales, Dr. Laserson's team plans to develop software to help scientists analyze these massive amounts of data in a way that allows interactive, scalable exploratory analysis - eliminating much of the laborious and complicated processes that scientists currently must perform to gain insights from their data and providing a platform where they can quickly react to and interact with data. Their proposal is built on the principles of distributed computing, where enormous data sets are loaded into memory across a cluster of computers, massively decreasing processing time.

After studying mathematics at MIT and genomics at Harvard, Dr. Laserson worked for a Silicon Valley start-up that developed open-source technology for data analysis with an interest in how the tools being used at places like Google and Facebook could be applied to problems in biology. Dr. Laserson says this is the "right place, and the right time," to bring Silicon Valley thinking into the lab.

"Essentially what we're trying to do is apply tools that are commonly used in the Valley for processing enormous datasets to allow researchers to scale up their capabilities to handle the large amounts of data we'll soon see coming out of projects like the Human Cell Atlas," said Dr. Laserson. "In the past 15 years, there's been a huge proliferation of open-source software tools that handle a lot of common big data problems. But in the case of data management, the ideas from industry haven't really made it over the fence to the academic labs."

When scientists analyze large data sets today, they often have to conceive of clever ways just to handle the data itself. If it's too large to be handled by one computer, it may need to be manually broken up into smaller pieces and processed separately. Steps such as these are not only complicated, time-consuming, and disruptive to scientific exploration; they're also a major cause of error. "If what I'm trying to do as the scientist is think about the data and develop hypotheses about the data, I want to do it interactively, without waiting minutes or hours for computations to finish, and without worrying about the data plumbing. Every time I have an idea for a figure, I want it to render instantaneously" said Dr. Laserson. "This CZI-funded project aims to provide a platform where we could put all of the single-cell data in one place in the cloud and when a researcher needs to do an analysis, they can connect to our platform and say, 'I want this data, filtered this way, displayed that way,' and have it served up to them very quickly."

Participants in CZI's Human Cell Atlas funding will collaborate with each other to accelerate progress, facilitate communications, and maximize open dissemination of the resulting tools. All software developed will be licensed with a permissive, open-source license so anyone can use it freely, including commercial entities.

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