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Scientists to Create a “Gut Cell Atlas” with Funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust

October 25, 2019 – Today, The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust announced $13 million in new grants to create a Gut Cell Atlas, cataloguing the many cell types in the small and large intestines. The initiative aims to understand distinct cell functions and interactions in human health and Crohn’s disease. Helmsley’s Gut Cell Atlas initiative is part of the larger Human Cell Atlas, an international effort to map all cells in the human body.

Human bodies are composed of trillions of cells. Each one matters, yet there is no complete catalog of all the cell types in the human body and little is known about how cells function and work together in tissues such as the gut. Advances in technology – namely analyses of gene expression at single-cell resolution and in spatial contexts – offer a new frontier for understanding both health and disease at the cellular level.

Indeed, Helmsley’s support will enable researchers to build a Gut Cell Atlas to examine both healthy and diseased intestinal tissue, paving the way to identifying key cell types involved in Crohn’s disease and learning what drives their behavior. This will complement $10 million in prior Helmsley commitments supporting Crohn’s disease research using single-cell analysis.

“The Gut Cell Atlas will offer unparalleled insights into what we know about ourselves and our gut, including the role of each cell in keeping us healthy – or causing disease. Mapping the cells of the gut is a critical step to realizing our goal of precise, personalized, and effective treatments for Crohn’s patients, while pursuing a cure,” said Dr. Garabet Yeretssian, Director of Helmsley’s Crohn’s Disease Program. “Overall, the Human Cell Atlas will be a major scientific milestone in this century, achieved equally through creativity and collaboration. We are proud to do our part by supporting teams to create a Gut Cell Atlas.”

“Helmsley’s philanthropic support towards mapping the human gut will help bring us one step closer to producing the Human Cell Atlas – a Google map of the 37 trillion cells in the human body,” said Dr. Sarah Teichmann, co-founder of the Human Cell Atlas initiative and Head of Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “The Gut Cell Atlas will help us uncover what happens in the gut in health and disease and will also serve as a model for building other comprehensive organ system atlases.”

Following an open request for applications last year, seven grants to six different institutions will support scientists to collaboratively examine the gut in healthy individuals and Crohn’s disease patients.

The following grantees will use a variety of single-cell analysis techniques to build a Gut Cell Atlas. These researchers will procure human tissue from both healthy individuals and those with Crohn’s disease, and gather data for gene and protein expression and cellular localization. Computational biologists will then analyze the data.

    • University of Chicago, led by Dr. Anindita Basu;
    • University of Edinburgh, led by Dr. Mark Arends;
    • Vanderbilt University Medical Center led by Dr. Keith Wilson.

One grant project will focus on particular cell types within the gut. Findings suggest that these cell types may play a key role in the pathology and/or symptoms of Crohn’s disease.

    • Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, led by Dr. Guy Boeckxstaens.

Three grantees will pilot novel technologies that, if effective, will provide a new level of understanding of cellular behavior leading to inflammation.

    • Columbia University, led by Dr. Jellert Gaublomme;
    • University of Chicago, led by Dr. Bobby Kasthuri;
    • University of Zurich, led by Dr. Andreas Moor.

These represent the first round of grants Helmsley is making to develop a Gut Cell Atlas.

About the Helmsley Charitable Trust

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting exceptional efforts in the U.S. and around the world in health and select place-based initiatives. Since beginning its active grantmaking in 2008, Helmsley has committed more than $2 billion for a wide range of charitable purposes. Helmsley’s Crohn’s Disease Program supports impactful ideas and mobilizes a global community committed to improving the lives of Crohn’s disease patients while pursuing a cure.  For more information, please visit helmsleytrust.org.