Asian scientists to map blood cell types across five population groups

Scientists from Singapore, South Korea, and Japan will study differences in blood cells across five major Asian population groups, including Chinese, Indian, and Malay, with the aim to understand why some are more susceptible to certain diseases and develop new blood-based diagnostic tests.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

A team of scientists from Singapore, Japan, and South Korea has secured a research grant to identify differences in the molecular properties of blood cells across five major Asian population groups. The goal here is to understand why some are more susceptible to certain diseases and develop new blood-based diagnostic tests. 

Awarded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the grant is the foundation's first Asian network research grant and part of its Human Cell Atlas programme, which aims to galvanise scientists around the world to map and characterise all cell types in a human body. By doing so, it hopes to establish a fundamental reference for biomedical research and better understanding of cellular heterogeneity in health and disease. 

The grant awarded to the Asian team of scientists is the Atlas programme's first from the region and will gather data on five populations: Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese, and Malay. 

Encompassing scientists from the Genome Institute of Singapore, Japan's RIKEN, and South Korea's Samsung Medical Centre, the research team would study differences between individuals of the same ethnicity living in different countries. Its analysis could forge better understanding of why some populations or individuals within the same population were more susceptible to certain diseases.

The team would be looking to define an atlas of Asian immune cell types and states, characterising these against ethnicity, environment, age, sex, and body mass index. Data from its research could offer insights on why a human body's immune cells attacked its own tissues--causing autoimmune diseases--and how individuals differ in their susceptibility and response to pathogens. 

Research efforts also would include the development of novel algorithms that integrated data generated at multiple sites to comprehensively define the properties of each cell type in human blood, according to a statement issued by the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), which is part of the country's public-sector R&D agency, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

Shyam Prabhakar, associate director of spatial and single cell systems for GIS, said: "By comprehensively characterising blood cells from over 500 Asians, this study will lay the foundation for developing a new kind of personalised medicine."

The institute's executive director Patrick Tan added: "It will help Singapore researchers develop new methods for diagnosing, monitoring, and eventually treating a whole range of diseases related to the immune system, including autoimmune disorders, infectious diseases, cancer, and potentially even some developmental disorders." 

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded in 2015 by Priscilla Chan and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, hopes to tap technology to address challenges such as preventing and eradicating disease and reforming the criminal justice system. Since its inception, the organisation has handed out some $1.6 billion in grants as well as invested more than $100 million in venture groups. 

In the Human Cell Atlas programme, the organisation said it would work with investigators to build the atlas and enable them to collaborate with the organisation's own team of computational biologists and software engineers.


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