Hände in verschiedenen Hauttönen

Not all hearts are the same

An international research team recently created the first atlas of the human heart. Now the scientists want to add a new dimension to the project: diversity. They are being supported by an additional Seed Networks grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide. But some people face a higher risk than others – for example, African-Americans in the US are affected much more often than Hispanics. In addition to socioeconomic disparities, genetic determinants also apparently influence how such diseases progress and how effective the treatments are.

But what exactly links the unequal risks? To answer this question, the Human Heart Cell Atlas – coordinated by Jonathan Seidman, Bugher Professor of Cardiovascular Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and Professor Norbert Hübner from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) – will additionally characterize the cellular and molecular signatures of healthy hearts from African-American and Hispanic donors. The project is also collaborating with partners in Brazil and Canada, such as Professor Gavin Oudit from the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute at the University of Alberta.

“African-Americans have, for example, lower rates of atherosclerosis but higher rates of coronary artery disease than white Americans. They also have higher rates of hypertension but lower rates of atrial fibrillation,” says Seidman. “We hypothesize that there are differences in the interaction between cell types and cell states, causing the heart to respond differently to normal biological processes and diseases, not just in African Americans but in peoples with many different ancestries.”

It all begins with a healthy organ

Our starting point here is also the healthy heart.
Prof. Dr. Norbert Hübner
Norbert Hübner Head of the MDC Lab "Genetics and Genomics of Cardiovascular Diseases"

The scientists want to analyze the full spectrum of the heart cells and their gene activity and then compare these findings with the existing data on Europeans. “Our starting point here is also the healthy heart,” says Norbert Hübner from the MDC, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK). Hübner, along with Dr. Sarah Teichmann from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK; Jonathan Seidman und Christine Seidman, both from Harvard Medical School in Boston; and Dr. Michela Noseda from Imperial College London; launched the Heart Cell Atlas about three years ago to gain a better understanding of the heart, cell by cell.

The Heart Cell Atlas is part of the global Human Cell Atlas initiative, which is run by a collaborative community of world-leading scientists. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is supporting the project under its CZI Seed Networks for the Human Cell Atlas. To make the diversity research possible, the US philanthropic organization will provide additional funding. CZI is supporting diversity projects on various tissues and organs by ten such Seed Networks, as it announced on October 28, 2020.

"It is critical to include diverse tissue samples in the Human Cell Atlas so we can learn and grow from historical shortcomings and bias in genomics,” says Norbert Tavares, CZI Program Manager for Single-Cell Biology. “While this effort is only the start of addressing diversity in the HCA in the long term, these projects will serve as an initial pilot to surface future opportunities to more deeply address these challenges for the future.”

Further information



Professor Norbert Hübner
Head of the Genetics and Genomics of Cardiovascular Diseases Lab
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)
+49-(0)30-9406-3512 (Secretariat)

Jana Schlütter
Editor, Communications Department
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)

About the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative


Founded by Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg in 2015, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is a new kind of philanthropy that’s leveraging technology to help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease, to improving education, to reforming the criminal justice system. Across three core Initiative focus areas of Science, Education, and Justice & Opportunity, CZI is pairing engineering with grant-making, impact investing, and policy and advocacy work to help build an inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone. For more information, please visit www.chanzuckerberg.com.

The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC)


The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) is one of the world’s leading biomedical research institutions. Max Delbrück, a Berlin native, was a Nobel laureate and one of the founders of molecular biology. At the MDC’s locations in Berlin-Buch and Mitte, researchers from some 60 countries analyze the human system – investigating the biological foundations of life from its most elementary building blocks to systems-wide mechanisms. By understanding what regulates or disrupts the dynamic equilibrium in a cell, an organ, or the entire body, we can prevent diseases, diagnose them earlier, and stop their progression with tailored therapies. Patients should benefit as soon as possible from basic research discoveries. The MDC therefore supports spin-off creation and participates in collaborative networks. It works in close partnership with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in the jointly run Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC), the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) at Charité, and the German Center for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK). Founded in 1992, the MDC today employs 1,600 people and is funded 90 percent by the German federal government and 10 percent by the State of Berlin.