A computational platform called CellChat, developed by scientists at the University of California Irvine can help decode and analyze the signals exchanged between human cells during various biological processes. A key to better understanding how tissues and organs are formed and how communication between cells can lead to disease.
In an article featured in the journal Nature Communications, we now know how to decode the information exchanged between human cells that leads to the formation of tissues and organs. Even better, this tool also opens up the possibility of analyzing the molecular processes that cause a variety of diseases, including cancer and autoimmune disorders.
Listening to cells to find out what they do and predict their future actions
“To fully understand why cells do certain things and to predict their future actions, we need to be able to listen to what they say to each other, and mathematical and machine learning tools enable the translation of these messages,” says Qing Nie, professor of mathematics and biology and co-author of this paper.
And what do our cells tell each other to control the biological function of our bodies? In fact, they exchange very simple messages like “do this” or “don’t do that,” much like computer codes. But what makes this exchange difficult to understand is that it contains a “cipher” that allows cells to select the most important messages amid a veritable bombardment of information through molecular words that reach them simultaneously.
The developed tool automatically calibrates the strength of the signals exchanged between cells, integrating the signaling effect of molecules that specify the expressed “command” by transforming it, for example, from “do this” to “do that now.”
Interpreting cell language
“For each group of cells, the platform shows which significant signals are sent to their neighbors and which signals they can receive. With this interpretation of cellular language, Cell Chat provides insight into the signaling patterns that control the whole organ’s function,” says Qing Nie.
What makes this deciphering system so valuable, beyond learning about how human biology works, is its ability to compare the communication networks between what happens in a healthy organ and what happens in the same organ when it is diseased. “So the Cell Chat platform can be used to discover molecular drivers in many diseases; in our work, we showcased its power using atopic dermatitis as an example, but this tool can work in any tissue with the same success,” the professor says.