The building blocks of the human lungs and airways

Lungs; For the first time, researchers have mapped the building blocks of the human lungs and airways, in both asthma patients and normal people. The research from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, University Medical Center Groningen, Open Targets, GSK and collaborators reveal the identity of each cell type, creating the first draft Human Cell Atlas of the lung. They also discovered an entirely new cell state that produces mucus in asthma patients.

The asthmatic lungs

Asthma is a common lung condition that makes breathing difficult; also triggers coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. It is caused by swelling of the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs making it difficult to get enough oxygen. Asthma affected over 350 million people worldwide in 2015; also over 5 million people in the UK are currently receiving treatment for asthma.

To explore cell types within normal lungs and upper airways; so researchers use single cell technology to study samples from 17 people. They analyse more than 36,000 individual cells from the nasal area and from three different areas of the lung. This allow researchers to see exactly; which genes were active in each cell and identify the specific cell type.

The researchers then detect the different cell types and activities in lung samples; so from six asthma patients, comparing them to normal lungs. They discover there were clear differences between the cells in normal and asthmatic lungs. One symptom of asthma is an overproduction of mucus. However, not all the cells responsible for this were know. The researchers discover a new mucus creating cell state; so the muco cilliate state in asthmatic lungs, that had not been seen before.

The respiratory airways

Dr. Felipe Vieira Braga, a first author on the paper from the wellcome Sanger Institute and Open Targets, said: They have generated a detail anatomical map of the respiratory airways; so producing the first draft human lung cell atlas from both normal and asthmatic people. This has given us a better definition of the cell types in asthmatic lungs; also allow us to discover an entirely new cell state in asthmatic patients that produces mucus.

Knowing the types of cells in asthmatic lungs and how they communicate, could help researchers seek new drug targets that could prevent the cells from responding to the inflammatory signals and help restore normal lung function. The atlases also reveal that location was important for the lung cells. The study show that cells in different areas of the lung had very different cellular activities. This has further implications for studying drug targets and designing drug trials.

Dr. Sarah Teichmann, a senior author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, University of Cambridge and Open Targets, and co-chair of the Human Cell Atlas Organising Committee, said: As part of the Human Cell Atlas initiative, they have create the first comprehensive cellular map of the lungs. The lung cell atlas will provide a great resource for further lung research and we hope that it will enable the identification of potential new therapeutic targets for asthma relief.