Mapping the Human Body


The Connection Between GIS + The Future of Medicine

It doesn’t take 14 years of medical training and an M.D. to know that the human body is an incredibly complex set of systems. But physicians, unlike the average person, are forced to confront this stunning complexity and interconnectivity every day in their diagnosis and treatment of patients. The intricacy of the human body’s systems has led many medical scientists to study health issues by first “mapping” the relevant biological systems. This location-based approach to medical research makes a lot of sense—to understand something as complex as the human body, of course you’d want to make a map of it.

This location-based approach is the philosophy behind a project that could revolutionize medical research: the Human Cell Atlas. This “Google Maps for the human body” is the brainchild of Aviv Regev, a computational biologist at MIT’s Broad Institute, who, like many other scientists, believes that mapping the human body’s cells could unlock a new world of evaluative and research techniques. The goal of the Atlas is to list, categorize and describe every type and subtype of cell, including the location of cells in the body and the genes that cells switch on and off. In doing this, scientists will be able to better understand how to target therapies and treatments within the body. Right now, the map of the human body we have to work with is essentially “a blurry map of the world, with the outlines of continents and oceans but little else,” according to a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. By creating an exhaustive catalogue of cells, we’ll get a clearer picture, a map that details “the position of all the mountains and rivers, even if every single rock and stream isn't known.”

For instance, right now genetic scientists are making huge strides in discovering genes linked to the development of different diseases; however, it’s not enough to know what these genes do. To actually turn that knowledge into life-saving treatments, scientists need to figure out where in the body these genes are expressed, and if there are cells that might be using these genes for processes that aren’t related to the disease that is being treated. Through the Human Cell Atlas, scientists will have unprecedented access to a wealth of information that has previously required months of research and hundreds of thousands of dollars, ushering in a new generation of advances in medicine. The project has financial backing from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which aims to “cure, prevent or manage all disease in our children’s lifetime.” That’s certainly a lofty goal, but the scientists behind the Human Cell Atlas believe it could be accomplished with the advances made possible by the Atlas.

Numerous other location-based approaches to human health can be found throughout the medical world. Skin cancer doctors have started using geographic information systems (GIS) to create complex maps of the human body that are used to allow patients to easily track and monitor moles and other symptoms, and give doctors a detailed schematic of the human body on which they can map lymphatic drainage channels to assess surgical options. Scientists in the field of electroceuticals are working to map the body’s electrical systems, which may lead to advances in treatment of asthma, obesity, sleep apnea, arthritis, incontinence and many other diseases and disorders. GlaxoSmithKline has invested $60 million in electroceuticals, and the National Institutes of Health is launching a program aimed at mapping the body’s electrical systems backed by a $248 million investment over the program’s lifetime. Another group of scientists has developed a map of the human microbiome that helps scientists to understand the implications of bacteria and other microorganisms on human immune health.

Mapping seems like such an obvious, simple approach, and it’s hard to believe it’s the future of medical research. But that’s how it goes: The best scientific developments always seem to be the ones that make people ask “Why has nobody thought of this before?” That also happens to be the response we often get after someone tries (To) for the first time. Once you embrace our location-based philosophy, it’s hard to imagine using any other decision-making strategy to get to where you want to be. Pre-med and medical students know they want to be physicians. To get there, they need to go to medical school and do their residency. We help them figure out which programs will allow them to be most successful by looking at where the programs are and what the students want. In medicine and in life, #WhereMatters.