New Techniques Let Scientists Zero In On Individual Cells

Averages can be misleading whether it be about the number of people who become billionaires or who will or won’t become susceptible to certain diseases or who will end up with blue eyes instead of black.

And according to Peter Smibert, of the New York Genome Center, averages are misleading especially as scientists try to understand the cell – the very basic unit of life. This is particularly important when it comes to the study of key traits in cells both in humans and other animals.  

In the past, huge samples of tissue had to be analyzed just to do this and what resulted was a mix of only an average of many cell types.  Just to give an example: it would be like learning about an orange by getting an analysis of an a  combo-smoothie made up of strawberries, blueberries, bananas and oranges.

However, in recent years, the development of techniques which allow scientists to directly study DNA codes, which is the activity of genes and other traits of single cells, has also opened the door to the pursuit of listing every cell type in the human body – a very audacious goal!

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, believes that analyzing single cells is crucial to a deeper more detailed understanding of human biology and health.

Science, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), says its ‘breakthrough of the year’ for 2018 is the naming of techniques tracking single-cell gene activity which over time develops organisms and organs.  It says that the singe-cell revolution is just starting.  

This singe-cell revolution will help to zero in on providing more accurate, precisetreatments and offers great potential for guiding the development of new improvements on current treatments than ever before.

This single-cell revolution already is allowing Nicholas Navin of the MD Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas, to see the different types of mutations in various cells of a single tumor and consequently he can identify when the mutations can become lethal. Not only will this help in the decision of which treatment to specifically use to fight lethal cells, but it will also help doctors know how well their treatments are working over time.

To map and catalog all the different cell types in the human body is a huge and audacious project and will involve more than 1,000 scientists from 57 different countries it will eventually profile at least a staggering 10 billion cells found in both healthy and sick people.