An Atlas of the Human Heart that May Guide Development of New Therapies

By Lisa Kadyk, PhD. CIRM Senior Science Officer

Illustration of a man’s heart – Courtesy Science Photo

I love maps; I still have auto club maps of various parts of the country in my car.  But, to tell the truth, those maps just don’t have as much information as I can get by typing in an address on my cell phone.  Technological advances in global positioning systems, cellular service, data gathering and storage, etc. have made my beloved paper maps a bit of a relic.  

Similarly, technological advances have enabled scientists to begin making maps of human tissues and organs at a level of detail that was previously unimaginable.  Hundreds of thousands of single cells can be profiled in parallel, examining expression of RNA and proteins.  These data, in combination with new three-dimensional spatial analysis techniques and sophisticated computational algorithms, allow high resolution mapping of all the cells in a given tissue or organ.

Given these new capabilities, an international “Human Cell Atlas Consortium” published a white paper in 2017 outlining plans and strategies to build comprehensive reference maps of all human cells, organ by organ.  The intent of building such an atlas is to give a much better understanding of the biology and physiology of normal human tissues, as well as to give new insights into the nature of diseases affecting those tissues and to point the way to developing new therapies. 

One example of this new breed of cartography was published September 24 in the journal Nature, in a paper called simply “Cells of the Human Heart”.   This tour-de-force effort was led by scientists from Harvard Medical School, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin and Imperial College, London.  These teams and their collaborators analyzed about 500,000 cells from six different regions of the healthy adult human heart, using post-mortem organs from 14 donors.  They examined RNA and protein expression and mapped the distribution of different types of cells in each region of the heart.  In addition, they made comparisons of male and female hearts, and identified cells expressing genes known to be associated with different types of heart disease.  

One of the take-home messages from this study is that there is a lot of cellular complexity in the heart – with 11 major cell types (examples include atrial and ventricular cardiomyocytes, fibroblasts and smooth muscle cells), as well as multiple subpopulations within each of those types.  Also notable is the different distribution of cells between the atria (which are at the top of the heart and receive the blood) and ventricles (which are on the bottom of the heart and pump blood out): on average, close to half of the cells in the ventricles are cardiomyocytes, whereas only a third of the cells in the atria are cardiomyocytes.  Finally, there is a significantly higher percentage of cardiomyocytes in the ventricles of women (56%) than in the ventricles of men (47%).    The authors speculate that this latter difference might explain the higher volume of blood pumped per beat in women and lower rates of cardiovascular disease.  

The authors gave a few examples of how their data can be used for a better understanding of heart disease.  For example, they identified a specific subpopulation of cardiomyocytes that expresses genes associated with atrial fibrillation, suggesting that the defect may be associated with those cells.   Similarly, they found that a specific neuronal cell type expresses genes that are associated with a particular ventricular dysfunction associated with heart failure.    In addition, the authors identified which cells in the heart express the highest levels of the SARS-CoV-2 receptor, ACE2, including pericytes, fibroblasts and cardiomyocytes.  

Now that these data are accessible for exploration at www.heartcellatlas.org, I have no doubt that many scientific explorers will begin to navigate to a more complete understanding of both the healthy and diseased heart, and ultimately to new treatments for heart disease.

Stem Cell Roundup: Backup cells to repair damaged lungs; your unique bowels; and California Cures, 71 ways CIRM is changing the face of medicine

It’s good to have a backup plan

3D illustration of Lungs, medical concept.

Our lungs are amazing things. They take in the air we breathe and move it into our blood so that oxygen can be carried to every part of our body. They’re also surprisingly large. If you were to spread out a lung – and I have no idea why you would want to do that – it would be almost as large as a tennis court.

But lungs are also quite vulnerable organs, relying on a thin layer of epithelial cells to protect them from harmful materials in the air. If those materials damage the lungs our body calls in local stem cells to repair the injury.

Now researchers at the University of Iowa have identified a new group of stem cells, called glandular myoepithelial cells (MECs), that also appear to play an important role in repairing injuries in the lungs.

These MECs seem to be a kind of “reserve” stem cell, waiting around until they are needed and then able to spring into action and develop into new replacement cells in the lungs.

In a news release study author Preston Anderson, said these cells could help develop new approaches to lung regeneration:

“We demonstrated that MECs can self-renew and differentiate into seven distinct cell types in the airway. No other cell type in the lung has been identified with this much stem cell plasticity.”

The study is published in Cell Stem Cell.

Your bowels are unique

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Not to worry, that’s a plastic model of  a bowel

If you are eating as you read this, you should either put your food down or skip this item for now. A new study on bowel cancer says that every tumor is unique and every cell within that tumor is also genetically unique.

Researchers in the UK and Netherlands took samples of normal bowel tissue and cancerous bowel tissue from three people with colorectal cancer. They then grew these in the labs and turned them into mini 3D organoids, so they could study them in greater detail.

In the study, published in the journal Nature, the researchers say they found that tumor cells, not surprisingly, had many more mutations than normal cells, and that not only was each bowel cancer genetically different from each other, but that each cell they studied within that cancer was also different.

In a news release, Prof Sir Mike Stratton, joint corresponding author on the paper from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said:

“This study gives us fundamental knowledge on the way cancers arise. By studying the patterns of mutations from individual healthy and tumour cells, we can learn what mutational processes have occurred, and then look to see what has caused them. Extending our knowledge on the origin of these processes could help us discover new risk factors to reduce the incidence of cancer and could also put us in a better position to create drugs to target cancer-specific mutational processes directly.”

California Cures: a great title for a great book about CIRM

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CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas (L) and Don Reed

One of the first people I met when I started working at CIRM was Don Reed. He impressed me then with his indefatigable enthusiasm, energy and positive outlook on life. Six years later he is still impressing me.

Don has just completed his second book on stem cell research charting the work of CIRM. It’s called “California Cures: How the California Stem Cell Research Program is Fighting Your Incurable Disease”. It’s a terrific read combining stories about stem cell research with true tales about Al Jolson, Enrico Caruso and how a dolphin named Ernestine burst Don’s ear drum.

On his website, Stem Cell Battles, Don describes CIRM as a “scrappy little stage agency” – I love that – and says:

“No one can predict the pace of science, nor say when cures will come; but California is bringing the fight. Above all, “California Cures” is a call for action. Washington may argue about the expense of health care (and who will get it), but California works to bring down the mountain of medical debt: stem cell therapies to ease suffering and save lives. We have the momentum. We dare not stop short. Chronic disease threatens everyone — we are fighting for your family, and mine!”