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An insider’s look at what goes on with proteins in a cell

Published Sep 12, 2017

There have been huge advances in medical science since Robert Hooke coined the term “cell” in 1665, yet the cells of the human body remain a mystery. KTH researcher Emma Lundberg is one of the scientists behind efforts to solve the puzzle of how cells work and ultimately to find new ways to treat disease.

For the past few years she has led the compiling of a human Cell Atlas , under the auspices of the Sweden-based Human Protein Atlas, a project driven by KTH’s Science For Life Laboratory  research center and funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation .

Emma Lundberg  is one of the featured speakers in the upcoming life science symposium, September 15 , marking the centennial of the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Emma Lundberg

The Cell Atlas provides researchers with unprecedented information about the temporal and spatial distribution of proteins in cells, an important step forward in the field of proteomics. “In the long run, this is the information researchers need in order to determine which proteins are involved in diseases and how they are connected,” Lundberg says. “We don’t know the function of more than half the proteins in the human body, yet 90 percent of the drugs on the market act by targeting proteins – blocking their function or increasing their function.

“So we provide pieces to the puzzle.”

It may not be the only effort in the world to characterize the human body’s cells. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen notably have backed similar projects. But the unparalleled dataset of high-resolution images compiled and annotated by the Human Protein Atlas team has been devoured by researchers since its launch in December 2016, showing for the first time the location of more than 12,000 proteins in cells. Lundberg says the open-access atlas is available freely to some 200,000 active users on a monthly basis.

“In Sweden we’re doing our best to provide this mapping in an open and collaborative way, and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation is supporting this,” she says. “Before Zuckerberg and Paul Allen, Wallenberg was a pioneer in projects like this and promoting open science.”

David Callahan

Watch a video explaining how proteins work in cells