Kick-off symposium on Single Cell Analysis with international experts raises great interest

Activity of individual genes in different cells of the developing human lung by ‘single molecule fluorescent in situ hybridization – smFISH’ (foto and data: Christos Samakovlis - SciLifeLab Stockholm)

The still young field of single cell analysis – i. e. the massive parallel sequencing of the RNA of hundreds of thousands of individual cells of a tissue or organ – has led to groundbreaking discoveries in biomedical research in recent years. It has virtually transformed our understanding of the cellular mechanisms of diseases. It was therefore no surprise that there was great interest in the kick-off symposium of the DZL disease-spanning research field* Single Cell Analysis.

More than 100 DZL researchers attended the symposium held via Zoom and contributed to lively discussions. The symposium was organized by Herbert Schiller (Helmholtz Munich, DZL site CPC-M) together with Christos Samakovlis (SciLifeLab Stockholm, and DZL site UGMLC), both DZL Principal Investigators.

The event started with the keynote lecture by Peter Dorfmüller (University of Giessen, DZL site UGMLC). He guided the participants through the variety of microscopic changes in tissue sections in different lung diseases such as pulmonary hypertension, COVID-19 and pulmonary fibrosis. These microscopic changes typically reflect structural changes in lung tissue. First applications of single cell analyses have already provided first insights into specific changes in gene expression of those cells that attended attraction due to their changes in size, shape or numbers. Nevertheless, major efforts by interdisciplinary research groups will still be required to simultaneously study the gene expression profile and the exact location of single cells within a tissue. Further talks by Martin Nawijn (UGMC Groningen), Alexander Misharin (Northwestern University Chicago), and Susanne Herold (University of Giessen, DZL site UGMLC) introduced the international ‘Human (Lung) Cell Atlas’ project and showed how novel organoid models may help to study various human diseases in miniature human organs instead of animal models of human cell lines.

High resolution X-ray tomography imaging of whole lungs in 3D

The recurring theme of the online symposium was the combination of single cell genomics data with high-resolution imaging. A particularly exciting talk was given by Willi Wagner (University of Heidelberg, DZL site TLRC). He presented recent advances in the generation of extremely high resolution X-ray tomography images of the human lung. This imaging technique achieves magnification and resolution comparable to classical microscopy images, but of the entire lung – and in three dimensions. Joakim Lundeberg’s (SciLifeLab, Stockholm) talk on Spatial Transcriptomics technology developed by his research group – i.e. the assignment of individual cells with a specific gene expression profile to specific locations on microscopic images – likewise resulted in a lively discussion about the possibilities and weaknesses of their new technology.

DZL’s Biobanking and Data Mangement platform as key for integrated analysis

The symposium also took into account that analysis and evaluation of single cell genomics plays an increasingly important role by dedicating a separate session to this topic. The two speakers, DZL PIs Malte Lücken and Fabian Theis (Helmholtz Munich, DZL site CPC-M), demonstrated the possibilities of pooling and jointly analyzing single cell data from different studies or clinical cohorts in combination with demographic data. This allows researchers to distinguish between cellular changes in the lung occurring physiologically as part of the aging process and pathological changes characterizing early or late stages of a particular disease. It became clear that in the future DZL’s Biobanking & Data Management platform as well as the DZL data warehouse will play a key role in integrated analysis of single cell data from different clinical cohorts and clinical electronic medical records.

The kick-off symposium on Single Cell Analysis showed that this area plays a key role in lung research: “Cellular circuits consisting of multiple individual cells and gene programs controlling them act as a functional unit, and are key to detect the state of a tissue and predicting its future state or intervening therapeutically”, according to Herbert Schiller, co-organizer of the DZL single cell analysis research field.


* Within the framework of the third funding period of the DZL, cross-sectional topics which overarch disease areas – so-called disease-spanning research fields – will be investigated together for the first time. One of these is Single Cell Analysis. The aim: research groups working on different different lung diseases will cooperate closely in applying new methods and algorithms and in order to gain new insights by comparing the diseases.


Source: Helmholtz Zentrum Munich


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