In November 2018, I attended the Falling Walls international conference on future breakthroughs in science and society in Berlin, Germany. Along with other 20 eminent participants from various backgrounds and expertise; I was invited to discuss the LifeTime initiative vision from different angles.
LifeTime initiative: background
The discussion was initiated with the current problem concerning the difficulty in detecting and treating many diseases owed to the incomplete understanding of how genomes function within cells, and how cells form tissues and dynamically remodel their activities when tissues progress towards disease. They want to have a role in the early detection and interception of chronic and progressive diseases to help in alleviating enormous suffering and the heavy, growing burden on the economy and ageing society.
The Initiative is the result of the merging of several research communities in Europe including single-cell biologists, computer scientists, mathematicians, clinicians, pathologists, imaging experts, and physicists.
Current four fundamental shortcomings in in basic and medical sciences approaches
- Resolving spatial cellular heterogeneity. Organs and tissues are composed of many different cells that communicate with each other to perform their specific functions. Each individual cell expresses a particular set of active genes and pathways, which is generally dependent on its environment and the activity of neighboring cells. Therefore, we must understand, for each cell, how the genome controls its function within the tissue and how, vice versa, changes in the tissue and its environment influence the genomic activity of the cell.
- Capturing cellular changes in time. A diseased organ has a specific history (i.e. onset and cause of the disease) and future (i.e. development of the disease, reaction to treatment).
- Novel organoid technologies must be profiled at single-cell resolution and optimized given computational modelling of human samples, then serve as ideal vehicles for perturbation analysis using CRISPR-Cas technologies and targeted drug screens;
- Finally, suitable in vivo models should be generated based on these data and used to determine causality in intact organisms.
By leveraging the continuous decreasing costs in computing power, DNA sequencing, multi-omics technologies and advanced imaging, LifeTime will ensure the quick movement from researching solutions for these key challenges towards innovation and implementation of cost-effective and scalable instruments, products and services.
The LifeTime consortium encompasses >50 leading research institutions with partners across 18 European countries. The initiative was founded by over 60 leading scientists across Europe including 11 European members of the Organizing Committee of the Human Cell Atlas. It is co-chaired by Nikolaus Rajewsky (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Berlin) and Geneviève Almouzni (Institute Curie, Paris). The two largest research organisations in Europe, the Helmholtz Association, Germany, and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), France, have pledged their support for LifeTime.
In my opinion, LifeTime is a major step beyond the genomic revolution and will fundamentally transform our understanding of life and the practice of medicine. It is paving the way to make it possible for physicians to assess the molecular state of patient tissues in real time, leading to early diagnosis and effective interception of disease which will have a huge effect not just on the European human health but global human health.