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Dr Nerissa Hannink
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Two new software projects designed in Melbourne could accelerate the progress of the world-first Human Cell Atlas – an ambitious global effort to map every cell in the human body as a resource for understanding, preventing and treating disease.

Bioinformaticians Dr Matt Ritchie from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and Dr Kim-Anh Lê Cao from the University of Melbourne were the only Australian-based researchers to receive support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which today announced US$15 million for 85 projects to support the Human Cell Atlas effort globally.

Planned to launch in October this year, the freely accessible software developed by the Australian teams will enable researchers to select the best data analysis tools available and properly integrate these data to make sense of the overwhelming amount of information being generated from single-cell studies.

Dr Ritchie said a significant challenge facing researchers was the hundreds of new tools they could choose from for the complex task of analysing massive datasets from research.

“CellBench is a software package we are developing that will enable researchers to easily compare the performance of data analysis methods, which are being developed almost weekly, and choose the best application for their work,” Dr Ritchie said.

Dr LêCao’s MixOmics project will offer sophisticated new computational methods that combine layers of molecular information to give researchers a complete picture of what distinguishes cells in the body. 

“Transforming data into knowledge requires powerful analytical methods. Our projects aim to develop statistical and computational methods to link and extract valuable information from different datasets. The methods can then be used by researchers to make new discoveries from these data,” Dr Lê Cao said.

Dr Ritchie said the Human Cell Atlas was an ambitious task that required data scientists from all over the world to work together to get accurate results from their single-cell analysis.

“The aim of Human Cell Atlas is to create a ‘Google map’ of all the different cells in our body in order to help understand, prevent and treat disease, so it’s crucial that this data is properly analysed.

“Our tools will guide single-cell researchers in the choice of the method most suited to their dataset and the questions they wish to answer, with the aim of avoiding incorrect and misleading results. In collaboration with Dr Lê Cao we will be able to integrate different types of genetic information to obtain robust and reproducible results across different studies,” he said.

“Cells are the building blocks of life so it’s incredibly exciting to be involved in accelerating the pace as well as ensuring the accuracy of single-cell discoveries, our combined computational efforts in this initiative represent the first important steps to deepen our knowledge of cell biology.” Dr Ritchie said.

In April this year, the researchers will attend a kick-off meeting in San Francisco, US, where they will present to other Chan Zuckerberg Initiative grantees and have the opportunity to forge new collaborations.

Co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Priscilla Chan MD said she was excited about how the distinguished group of grantees would support the Human Cell Atlas effort.

“These partners will create new ways for scientists to use information about healthy and diseased cells. Their efforts will help to accelerate progress toward our goal of curing, preventing, or managing all diseases by the end of the century,” Dr Chan said.

The research is supported by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Victorian Government.