Fantastic Voyage: using stem cells to build live 3D maps of our cells

From the 1966 sci-fi action thriller Fantastic Voyage to the recent, hilarious cartoon, Phineas and Ferb, TV and film have often depicted the idea of people miniaturizing themselves and traveling into the microscopic world of the human body. Now, that journey is a reality for you and me.

Well, sort of.


Traveling inside the human body is a popular story plot.

This week, the Allen Institute for Cell Science launched the Allen Cell Explorer, an online portal to some very cool 3D (and equally cool 2D) microscopic images and movies of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs)-derived cells which users can manipulate. Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton explains further in her April 5th article:

“Users can rotate the images on their computer screens and zoom in on structures tagged with glowing, fluorescent dyes. Time-lapse movies on the site show how cells interact and change over time.”

The project was made possible by a $100 million grant by Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft along with Bill Gates. With that kind of money, the website is not just for “ooo-ing” and “ahhh-ing” at the beautiful microscopy. It also has ambitious scientific research goals such as using the cell imagery for building predictive computer models of cell behavior. Watch this excellent introduction video produced by the institute:

With iPSCs as their source material, researchers will have the ability to examine nearly any cell type of their choosing with the Allen Cell Explorer. University of Washington biologist Benjamin Freedman, who uses iPS cells to study kidney disease, spoke to Doughton about the importance of this large-scale effort to map out the inner workings of cell.

“We need to understand what’s happening in these diseases at the cellular level and how that affects the tissue if we’re ever going to be able to treat the root cause of the disease and not just the symptoms.”

You can visit the portal at: Though it’s pretty technical now, the creators plan to add educational tools in the future to make it more user friendly for students and the general public.

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