Abbas Rizvi As single-cell atlases continue to be constructed, the scientific and medical communities are gaining deeper insights on how the body functions. This kind of scientific investment is important and it could yield dramatic returns -- such as novel treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and spinal cord injuries.
Home » Featured Slider » Building the human spinal cord atlas

Building the human spinal cord atlas

Several years ago, the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral on social media. Thousands of people, including athletes, celebrities and government officials around the world were filmed having a bucket of ice water poured on their heads and then nominating others to do the same. It drew attention and support toward finding a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a devastating neurodegenerative disease characterized by selective motor neuron death. These neurons enable muscle movements such as chewing, walking and use of one’s hands. Over time, affected individuals lose their muscle strength and ability to walk, speak and move. There’s currently no cure for ALS and no effective treatment to stop or reverse its progression.

A team of scientists at Columbia University are hoping to change this outcome. For several years, Dr. Abbas Rizvi and his colleagues have been working on identifying and understanding the function of every neuron in the human spinal cord. Dr. Rizvi says, “The goal is to create a baseline of reference of all the cell types. When you think about neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, we understand that different cell types in the spinal cord contributes to selective motor neuron death. By building a human spinal cord atlas, it creates a unique opportunity to create a springboard for palliative care or even cure diseases.”

Several elements have come together to bring the team a step closer to this goal. One of these factors is access to better tools and technologies. Dr. Rizvi recalls, “A decade ago the concept of doing single-cell sequencing was daunting, but now it’s become more standardized practice.” Products developed by companies like Integrated DNA Technologies have been instrumental in helping accelerate experimental workflows. Their high level of reliability give scientists confidence that they are generating clean and accurate data.

With the fundamental resources in place, Dr. Rizvi and his colleagues are able to do what they do best. They are getting creative, thinking outside the box and building meaningful relationships with individuals in and out of the field of genomics. And the results are nothing short of brilliant.

“An exciting new direction is understanding how spatially resolved transcriptomics could be conducted and what that could offer to our understanding of the central nervous system, and specifically the spinal cord.” Dr. Rizvi has a track record of unconventional analysis.  One algorithm he developed with Dr. Raul Rabadan, theoretical physicist in biomedical informatics and systems biology, that turns to topology, an area of math that enables unfettered access to relationships between surfaces and shapes, to analyze dynamic biological process occurring at different stages of a cell’s development. With this data, it becomes possible to pinpoint what occurs during cell development that gives rise to the genesis of complex diseases like ALS and cancer.

This promising algorithm as well as every tool and discovery made through this project are openly available to members of the scientific community and beyond. As part of the Human Cell Atlas Project, one of the things Dr. Rizvi enjoys the most is being part of a strong network of researchers. “There are scientists all over the world working on similar projects in different organs of the human body. Being able to intersect with these people not only forms strong relationships, but also accelerates scientific progress.”


Rodalyn Guinto

Rodalyn Guinto

Rodalyn works as a clinical researcher, writer, and breaking news journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her interests are broad and varied, from therapies and medical devices advancing diabetes treatment to public policies supporting social justice. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Public Health from California State University, East Bay. She earned her Master of Public Policy from Mills College.

Click here to join our weekly newsletter. We want to hear what you think about this article. Got a tip for our news team? Write to

Editor’s picks