Diseases progress very differently for each individual. Researchers are now setting the direction for future disease research, focusing on international collaboration in understanding diseases at the single-cell level.
The reason you get sick is because the cells in your body are affected in some way. Some of this is genetic, but environment also plays a part.
Disease therefore differs in how it develops at an individual level. Similarly, treatment should also be personalized, but this does not happen.
However, this will happen in the future according to a large group of researchers from 90 academic institutions and 80 companies comprising the LifeTime Initiative. The researchers have joined forces to set out the direction research should take to understand diseases more fully and how to treat the people who have them.
“LifeTime was established 4 years ago to determine how we can better steer research in the direction of being able to solve key medical challenges. Why do we get ill? What happens in the body? And how do people differ? Some people get COVID-19 and become very ill and others do not. To understand these differences, we need to know how the diseases affect the body at a single-cell level, and LifeTime was established to move research in this direction,” explains a Danish partner in LifeTime, Jørgen Kjems, Professor, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University.
LifeTime recently published an article in Nature that outlines its plans for future international disease research.
Using technology to study single cells in incredible detail
The pioneering technologies developed in recent years for studying single cells are the basis for being on the threshold of a revolution in understanding what actually causes disease.
Today, researchers can extract single cells from a cancerous tumour and study how each cell behaves. This applies to their genetics but even more to cell metabolism and protein expression.
This enables researchers to develop knowledge about the cellular complexity of a tumour and how a cancer cell differs from a healthy cell and to determine which treatments will work best.
These revolutionary technologies can also be used on cells from individual people, and researchers and doctors can determine which treatment best suits each person with a specific type of cancer.
“We have these opportunities today. We can find differences between individuals with a given disease and then provide the optimal treatment for each disease profile,” says Jørgen Kjems.
The task cannot be carried out alone
However, the problem is that although researchers can extract huge quantities of data from individual cells, the data are very difficult to analyse .
“Analysing these data is very tedious and requires expensive infrastructure, which prevents many research groups from entering this field of research. However, together we can advance our knowledge on how diseases develop at the cellular level and from here plan the optimal treatment,” explains Jørgen Kjems.
This is why the LifeTime Initiative was established: creating a network for researchers who synergize with each other to move the agenda forward.
“The article in Nature provides a roadmap for what we need to do to make progress. The complexity of the tasks means that individual research groups cannot solve this alone, but only jointly,” says Jørgen Kjems.
Focus on specific disease areas
According to Jørgen Kjems and his colleagues at LifeTime, the research carried out in the coming years will analyse large molecular and clinical data sets from the cells of people who are ill.
The cells will be examined with state-of-the-art technologies, and the data will be analysed to broadly inform the research community about how diseased cells differ from healthy cells across a wide range of diseases; how they manifest themselves among different people; and what to do to correct the disease landscape.
In the Nature article, the researchers focus on developing roadmaps for improving our understanding of diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases and cancer.
“For these and other disease areas we have considerable potential for advancing our knowledge and developing better treatments,” explains Jørgen Kjems.
The researchers will also jointly improve methods for extracting stem cells from sick people and grow them in the laboratory as organoids that can be studied in greater detail than is possible in people. This will also enable treatments to be tested before they are used in humans.
“These are the main focus areas of the LifeTime Initiative. Together, we need to examine a huge quantity of cells from people with these diseases using many technologies and then make these data available to one another so that we can help each other in analysing the enormous data sets and advance our knowledge on the diseases,” says Jørgen Kjems.
Data sharing is essential
Information sharing is a key aspect of the LifeTime Initiative.
LifeTime is working on developing models for how researchers can share both biological samples and data with each other, both to counteract data protectionism among individual researchers and to ensure compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union.
Data sharing will ensure that the findings of researchers in Denmark are shared with researchers in Italy so that they do not have to repeat laborious experiments but instead can take the next step in research and build on the insight obtained in Denmark and vice versa.
Finally, companies have an important role to play in the LifeTime Initiative and advancing global health, because they will often have an incentive to commercialize the diagnostic tools or treatments.
“The companies are the ones that will take our research results and implement the methods to improve diagnosis at bedside or to develop more personalized treatments. Many academic research groups and companies are very interested in participating because they can see that research and treatment are headed down this road. We can all get there more rapidly now that we have established LifeTime as an instrument to join forces” concludes Jørgen Kjems.