Inflection Point

During a presentation to the National Institutes of Health in 2014, Aviv Regev asked one of the biggest questions imaginable in her field: Can we better understand human health and disease by creating an atlas of all human cells?

It was a eureka moment born of years of scientific inquiry and a longstanding passion for cultivating a diverse team of talented people and methodologies to solve complex challenges.

The answer to Aviv’s question, which has ultimately united a still-growing community of thousands of scientists across more than 76 countries and numerous disciplines, became the Human Cell Atlas. The project’s mission: to create comprehensive reference maps of all human cells — the fundamental units of life — as a basis for both understanding human health and diagnosing, monitoring, and treating disease.

Aviv knew from the start that a mission like this would require a global village. “Science is a social activity. We wouldn’t get much done if we didn’t collaborate with each other, from nucleating and hashing out new ideas to joining our collective talents to solve problems that no one person can solve alone.”

Fully realized, the Human Cell Atlas will function like Google Maps, and could be used to zoom in and out from the subcellular to the organismal level to understand how the body works — or doesn’t — on different scales. It is an endeavor that exemplifies Aviv’s lifelong vision to unite computational and biological science — a vision that is now poised to transform how we discover and develop new medicines.


Aviv discovered her passion for the cell as a student in the Adi Lautman Interdisciplinary Program for Outstanding Students at Tel Aviv University. She was fascinated by the interplay of big ideas and advanced math and biology. After earning a Master’s degree through the program, she went on to complete a Ph.D. at the university in computational biology.

“I fell in love with the idea that cells are sophisticated computational devices that we don’t quite fully understand yet,” Aviv says. “I thought that with the right kind of data and the right kind of modeling, you could understand how they work in greater detail. That drove me to look for ways to infer the underlying order in these messy networks underpinning life, and has motivated my research ever since.”

Blending diverse interests and disciplines is central to Aviv’s efforts to unravel the mysteries of the cell. It’s an approach that embraces, rather than shies away from, complexity. “When I have two choices, I usually decide to do both at the same time,” she says.

Studying the Symphony of Cells

Studying the Symphony of Cells

Listen to Aviv Regev discuss her love of cells, and her outlook on single cell genomics and computational biology.


Aviv’s early work in computational and systems biology led her to a position at MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, working with scientists to advance research in areas including cancer, autoimmune disorders, neurodegeneration and infectious disease.

Aviv became the founding director of the Klarman Cell Observatory, a first-of-its-kind center dedicated to dissecting cells, their circuitry and their function in tissues. There, she led an interdisciplinary team that pioneered single-cell genomics, a new method of understanding how large numbers of diverse cells behave individually and together, and how to apply it — along with systematic perturbations and machine learning algorithms — to understand circuits within cells and between cells in tissues.

Single-cell genomics enables researchers to scrutinize what an individual cell is doing at a particular moment in time. “We found that single-cell profiles can shine new light on every aspect of biology,” Aviv says. The technology allows scientists to create hypotheses about the way cells work together and the way disease-related changes occur. This groundbreaking effort was the first in a series of major developments that would connect Aviv’s academic mission to the field of drug discovery on an unprecedented scale.

The second was the advent of CRISPR genome editing. Aviv pioneered using CRISPR in combination with single-cell genomics to gain an understanding of genes and their impact on cell function at levels of detail not previously possible. This helped scientists test numerous hypotheses about the biology of cells in parallel. In tandem, the emergence of deep learning, a subset of machine learning, empowered researchers to find meaningful patterns and connections among the enormous amounts of data produced by such experiments, and to make better and more precise predictions.


To Aviv, these and other advances marked an inflection point not only in what could be accomplished with basic research, but also in what could be achieved for patients: a drug discovery process made faster and more effective through data driven from human biology and high resolution methods, and through models that were predictive, generative, and interpretable. Bringing her vision to a company like Genentech, focused on making medicines for people with serious diseases, emerged as a natural next step in Aviv’s journey.

“Now is the right time to blend deep biology with advanced computation in a manner that directly benefits patients,” Aviv explains. “This requires ‘vertically-integrated biology’ that links data across many scales — from the behavior of individual molecules and cells, to clinical outcomes in a single patient, to patterns of response in populations. When the opportunity to join Genentech arose, I knew it was the right place to fully realize this vision.”


Aviv became Head of Genentech Research and Early Development (gRED) in August 2020, leading a team recognized for its creativity, sense of mission and pioneering science. At gRED, Aviv is advancing a long tradition of leadership in using bold approaches to discover and deliver breakthrough medicines.

Aviv recognizes that the breadth and diversity of Genentech’s scientists forms the right partnership that together can translate her long-standing passion for understanding cells into unprecedented benefits for patients. For example, Genentech scientists and collaborators continue to expand the repertoire of treatment modalities, which have created numerous ways to disrupt abnormal cellular circuits or restore normal cell function. Searching and making molecules or other therapies increasingly benefits from the partnership between lab experiments and computational algorithms. Meanwhile, translational and clinical researchers are embracing the full potential of technology to predict and monitor patients’ response to novel therapies.

The diverse gRED team, under Aviv’s leadership, continues to ask big questions — and answer them by elevating and integrating varied scientific disciplines. Clearly, many more eureka moments lie ahead. The chance to build upon the existing talent excites Aviv, who embraces this opportunity as a way to pursue another long-standing passion: mentorship, which she describes as “the greatest joy” in her work. It is a two-way street, says Aviv, quoting an ancient proverb “I have learned from all my teachers, but I have learned from my students the most.”

Aviv has what she calls “non-advice advice” for young scientists: “Don’t always listen to advice, because it may not be right for you. People told me to focus my research. But I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t have been happy if I did.” Most importantly, Aviv maintains, “follow your heart, have a flexible mind, follow your moral compass, be generous to yourself and others, and strive to do good in the world.”

Aviv and her team at gRED aspire to live by these words every day.

Aviv Regev is the Head of Genentech Research and Early Development (gRED) at Genentech. Learn more about her work here.