European scientists unite to track all cells in the human body


A large consortium of European researchers will develop and apply new technologies to profile virtually all individual cells within the human body, and track how they change during ageing and disease. Prof. Stein Aerts and prof. Chris Marine (both VIB-KU Leuven) are two Belgian partners in this very ambitious project.

The FET-Flag LifeTime project is an unprecedented European scientific endeavor launched by a consortium of 60 scientists from all across the continent. Their goal is to track, understand and predict how the molecular make-up of cells changes during human diseases, and ultimately, how to intervene.


New techniques
The success of the project relies heavily on technology development. The scientists need new ways to extract DNA, RNA, and proteins from individual cells, at high-throughput scale. They are working on lab-on-a-chip and microfluidic devices that can generate nanoliter droplets to capture a single cell, barcode it, and amplify its DNA and RNA.


Recording the spatial location and all biological parameters of each individual cell within a tissue will generate a gigantic amount of multidimensional data. It is up to creative bioinformaticians such as Stein Aerts and his team to develop novel approaches to extract useful information from this avalanche of data.


“We are keen on inventing new bioinformatics and machine learning algorithms to analyse and model which genes are active in individual cells. A variety of genome-wide information layers or “omics” data will be generated for millions, perhaps even billions of single cells. We’ll need smart ways of making sense of this data if we want to use it to make valuable predictions for patients, including disease outcome, therapy choice, or prognosis.”


New insights
This is where cancer experts such as Chris Marine come in. His team will exploit the single-cell methods to profile large amounts of single cells from healthy tissues and tumors. Since these individual cells can be studied over time, the researchers can track how cells evolve during the progression of a disease and in response to specific treatments.


“We have so far only performed a hand-full of single-cell experiments in our lab. Yet, it has become immediately obvious to us that the single-cell resolution is a revolution! It is creating a real shift in our understanding of biology and disease. If combined with the right models and tools this technology will simply revolutionize medicine.”


Applications extend to many other diseases besides cancer and both researchers underscore the importance of teamwork in this large endeavour. Chris Marine: “Single-cell biology is a new field that combines multiple disciplines. This is why being part of this consortium, together with experts in technology development, bioinformatics and systems biology, is so critical and exciting for us.” Aerts: “All of these efforts combined will generate new fundamental insights into the biology of our body, which will in turn provide a better understanding of diseases and ultimately new therapeutic avenues.”


Prof. Stein Aerts heads the Laboratory of Computational Biology at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research and the KU Leuven Department of Human Genetics


Prof. Chris Marine heads the Laboratory for Molecular Cancer Biology at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology and the KU Leuven Department of Oncology



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