Each one of us is a walking, talking database. And scientists are just now learning how to crack our code.
A single human cell contains nearly 700 MB of data in its DNA. But DNA is only one format of cellular data. Each cell also has a rich library of information, encoded in several types of complex molecules, that can reveal how those DNA instructions are being activated and interpreted, and how the cell is functioning and interacting with its environment.
When you multiply that one cell by the approximately 5 trillion in one adult human body, with its diversity of tissues and functions, you get a lot of data.
Technological advancements in laboratory techniques and data science are empowering researchers to read and understand much more of the information hidden in our cells than they could even a decade ago. This allows them profound new insights into how our bodies work, what goes wrong when we get sick, and how to design new medicines to intervene.
“Our treatments today would never have been possible without the painstaking study of changes in tissue,” said Dr. Hootie Warren, a cancer immunologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and head of its Global Oncology program.
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These technologies are changing the future of science. But they’re also revealing its past.
For decades, scientists have been carefully collecting and storing tissue samples from human patients and lab animals, with the idea that scientists might be able to learn more from them in the future than they themselves could in the present.
Samples are stored in biorepositories that preserve the cells — and as much of their precious biological data as possible — nestled in blankets of frost at temperatures as low as -320° F.
These samples are irreplaceable. And so research institutions like Fred Hutch have dedicated staff to manage them and failsafe systems to protect them in case something goes wrong.
Warren’s team, for example, is shipping patient samples from the Uganda Cancer Institute to Fred Hutch, where they are conducting deep analyses not yet implemented in Uganda. They hope their studies will give them insights they can use to design better cancer treatments. But the scientists are not analyzing all of the samples right away — they’re storing many of them in secure liquid nitrogen tanks managed by the Hutch’s centralized Research Cell Bank.
When they pull those samples out again, whether next year, the year after, or even 30 years, who knows what they will be able to learn.
“The questions that I will ask tomorrow, and all my colleagues will ask tomorrow, we probably have no clue about today,” Warren said.
- Written by Susan Keown
Robert Hood is the senior multimedia producer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He worked on the award-winning multimedia team at MSNBC.com and NBCNews.com for almost two decades, covering national and international news and coordinating special projects. Before that he taught photojournalism at the University of Missouri, worked as a newspaper page designer in Missouri, and worked as a newspaper photojournalist in Missouri, Wyoming and Utah. Reach him at email@example.com.
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