Category: MultiCellDS

Building a Cellular Automaton Model Using BioFVM

Note: This is part of a series of “how-to” blog posts to help new users and developers of BioFVM. See below for guides to setting up a C++ compiler in Windows or OSX.

What you’ll need

Matlab or Octave for visualization. Matlab might be available for free at your university. Octave is open source and available from a variety of sources.

Our modeling task

We will implement a basic 3-D cellular automaton model of tumor growth in a well-mixed fluid, containing oxygen pO2 (mmHg) and a drug c (e.g., doxorubicin, μM), inspired by modeling by Alexander Anderson, Heiko Enderling, Jan PoleszczukGibin Powathil, and others. (I highly suggest seeking out the sophisticated cellular automaton models at Moffitt’s Integrated Mathematical Oncology program!) This example shows you how to extend BioFVM into a new cellular automaton model. I’ll write a similar post on how to add BioFVM into an existing cellular automaton model, which you may already have available.

Tumor growth will be driven by oxygen availability. Tumor cells can be live, apoptotic (going through energy-dependent cell death, or necrotic (undergoing death from energy collapse). Drug exposure can both trigger apoptosis and inhibit cell cycling. We will model this as growth into a well-mixed fluid, with pO2 = 38 mmHg (about 5% oxygen: a physioxic value) and c = 5 μM.

Mathematical model

As a cellular automaton model, we will divide 3-D space into a regular lattice of voxels, with length, width, and height of 15 μm. (A typical breast cancer cell has radius around 9-10 μm, giving a typical volume around 3.6×103 μm3. If we make each lattice site have the volume of one cell, this gives an edge length around 15 μm.)

In voxels unoccupied by cells, we approximate a well-mixed fluid with Dirichlet nodes, setting pO2 = 38 mmHg, and initially setting c = 0. Whenever a cell dies, we replace it with an empty automaton, with no Dirichlet node. Oxygen and drug follow the typical diffusion-reaction equations:

\[ \frac{ \partial \textrm{pO}_2 }{\partial t} = D_\textrm{oxy} \nabla^2 \textrm{pO}_2 – \lambda_\textrm{oxy} \textrm{pO}_2 – \sum_{ \textrm{cells} i} U_{i,\textrm{oxy}} \textrm{pO}_2 \]

\[ \frac{ \partial c}{ \partial t }  = D_c \nabla^2 c – \lambda_c c – \sum_{\textrm{cells }i} U_{i,c} c \]

where each uptake rate is applied across the cell’s volume. We start the treatment by setting c = 5 μM on all Dirichlet nodes at t = 504 hours (21 days). For simplicity, we do not model drug degradation (pharmacokinetics), to approximate the in vitro conditions.

In any time interval [t,tt], each live tumor cell i has a probability pi,D of attempting division, probability pi,A of apoptotic death, and probability pi,N of necrotic death. (For simplicity, we ignore motility in this version.) We relate these to the birth rate bi, apoptotic death rate di,A, and necrotic death rate di,N by the linearized equations (from Macklin et al. 2012):

\[ \textrm{Prob} \Bigl( \textrm{cell } i \textrm{ becomes apoptotic in } [t,t+\Delta t] \Bigr)  = 1 – \textrm{exp}\Bigl( -d_{i,A}(t) \Delta t\Bigr) \approx d_{i,A}\Delta t \]

\[ \textrm{Prob} \Bigl( \textrm{cell } i \textrm{ attempts division in } [t,t+\Delta t] \Bigr)  = 1 – \textrm{exp}\Bigl( -b_i(t) \Delta t\Bigr) \approx b_{i}\Delta t \]

\[ \textrm{Prob} \Bigl( \textrm{cell } i \textrm{ becomes necrotic in } [t,t+\Delta t] \Bigr)  = 1 – \textrm{exp}\Bigl( -d_{i,N}(t) \Delta t\Bigr) \approx d_{i,N}\Delta t \]

Each dead cell has a mean duration Ti,D, which will vary by the type of cell death. Each dead cell automaton has a probability pi,L of lysis (rupture and removal) in any time span [t,t+Δt]. The duration TD is converted to a probability of cell lysis by

\[ \textrm{Prob} \Bigl( \textrm{dead cell } i \textrm{ lyses in } [t,t+\Delta t] \Bigr)  = 1 – \textrm{exp}\Bigl( -\frac{1}{T_{i,D}} \Delta t\Bigr) \approx \frac{ \Delta t}{T_{i,D}} \]

(Illustrative) parameter values

We use Doxy = 105 μm2/min (Ghaffarizadeh et al. 2016), and we set Ui,oxy = 20 min-1 (to give an oxygen diffusion length scale of about 70 μm, with steeper gradients than our typical 100 μm length scale). We set λoxy = 0.01 min-1 for a 1 mm diffusion length scale in fluid.

We set Dc = 300 μm2/min, and Uc = 7.2×10-3 min-1 (Dc from Weinberg et al. (2007), and Ui,c twice as large as the reference value in Weinberg et al. (2007) to get a smaller diffusion length scale of about 204 μm). We set λc = 3.6×10-5 min-1 to give a drug diffusion length scale of about 2.9 mm in fluid.

We use TD = 8.6 hours for apoptotic cells, and TD = 60 days for necrotic cells (Macklin et al., 2013). However, note that necrotic and apoptotic cells lose volume quickly, so one may want to revise those time scales to match the point where a cell loses 90% of its volume.

Functional forms for the birth and death rates

We model pharmacodynamics with an area-under-the-curve (AUC) type formulation. If c(t) is the drug concentration at any cell i‘s location at time t, then let its integrated exposure Ei(t) be

\[ E_i(t) = \int_0^t c(s) \: ds \]

and we model its response with a Hill function

\[ R_i(t) = \frac{ E_i^h(t) }{ \alpha_i^h + E_i^h(t) }, \]

where h is the drug’s Hill exponent for the cell line, and α is the exposure for a half-maximum effect.

We model the microenvironment-dependent birth rate by:

\[ b_i(t) = \left\{ \begin{array}{lr} b_{i,P} \left( 1 – \eta_i R_i(t) \right) & \textrm{ if } \textrm{pO}_{2,P} < \textrm{pO}_2 \\  \\ b_{i,P} \left( \frac{\textrm{pO}_{2}-\textrm{pO}_{2,N}}{\textrm{pO}_{2,P}-\textrm{pO}_{2,N}}\right) \Bigl( 1 – \eta_i R_i(t) \Bigr) & \textrm{ if } \textrm{pO}_{2,N} < \textrm{pO}_2 \le \textrm{pO}_{2,P} \\ \\ 0 & \textrm{ if } \textrm{pO}_2 \le \textrm{pO}_{2,N}\end{array} \right. \]

where pO2,P is the physioxic oxygen value (38 mmHg), and pO2,N is a necrotic threshold (we use 5 mmHg), and 0 < η < 1 the drug’s birth inhibition. (A fully cytostatic drug has η = 1.)

We model the microenvironment-dependent apoptosis rate by:

\[ d_{i,A}(t)  = d_{i,A}^* + \Bigl( d_{i,A}^\textrm{max} – d_{i,A}^* \Bigr) R_i(t)  \]

where di,Amax is the maximum apoptotic death rate. We model the microenvironment-dependent necrosis rate by:

\[ d_{i,N}(t) = \left\{ \begin{array}{lr} 0 & \textrm{ if } \textrm{pO}_{2,N} < \textrm{pO}_{2} \\ \\ d_{i,N}^* &  \textrm{ if } \textrm{pO}_{2} \le \textrm{pO}_{2,N} \end{array}\right. \]

for a constant value di,N*.
(Illustrative) parameter values

We use bi,P = 0.05 hour-1 (for a 20 hour cell cycle in physioxic conditions), di,A* = 0.01 bi,P, and di,N* = 0.04 hour-1 (so necrotic cells survive around 25 hours in low oxygen conditions).

We set α = 30 μM*hour (so that cells reach half max response after 6 hours’ exposure at a maximum concentration c = 5 μM), h = 2 (for a smooth effect), η = 0.25 (so that the drug is partly cytostatic), and di,Amax = 0.1 hour^-1 (so that cells survive about 10 hours after reaching maximum response).

Building the Cellular Automaton Model in BioFVM

BioFVM already includes Basic_Agents for cell-based substrate sources and sinks. We can extend these basic agents into full-fledged automata, and then arrange them in a lattice to create a full cellular automata model. Let’s sketch that out now.

Extending Basic_Agents to Automata

The main idea here is to define an Automaton class which extends (and therefore includes) the Basic_Agent class. This will give each Automaton full access to the microenvironment defined in BioFVM, including the ability to secrete and uptake substrates. We also make sure each Automaton “knows” which microenvironment it lives in (contains a pointer pMicroenvironment), and “knows” where it lives in the cellular automaton lattice. (More on that in the following paragraphs.)

So, as a schematic (just sketching out the most important members of the class):

class Standard_Data; // define per-cell biological data, such as phenotype, 
	// cell cycle status, etc..
class Custom_Data; // user-defined custom data, specific to a model.

class Automaton : public Basic_Agent
		Microenvironment* pMicroenvironment; 
		CA_Mesh* pCA_mesh; 
		int voxel_index; 
		// neighbor connectivity information
		std::vector<Automaton*> neighbors; 
		std::vector<double> neighbor_weights; 
		Standard_Data standard_data; 
		void (*current_state_rule)( Automaton& A , double ); 
		void copy_parameters( Standard_Data& SD  ); 
		void overwrite_from_automaton( Automaton& A );  

		void set_cellular_automaton_mesh( CA_Mesh* pMesh );  
		CA_Mesh* get_cellular_automaton_mesh( void ) const;  
		void set_voxel_index( int ); 
		int get_voxel_index( void ) const;  
		void set_microenvironment( Microenvironment* pME );  
		Microenvironment* get_microenvironment( void );  

		// standard state changes
		bool attempt_division( void ); 
		void become_apoptotic( void ); 
		void become_necrotic( void ); 
		void perform_lysis( void ); 
		// things the user needs to define
		Custom_Data custom_data;
		// use this rule to add custom logic 
		void (*custom_rule)( Automaton& A , double); 		

So, the Automaton class includes everything in the Basic_Agent class, some Standard_Data (things like the cell state and phenotype, and per-cell settings), (user-defined) Custom_Data, basic cell behaviors like attempting division into an empty neighbor lattice site, and user-defined custom logic that can be applied to any automaton. To avoid lots of switch/case and if/then logic, each Automaton has a function pointer for its current activity (current_state_rule), which can be overwritten any time.

Each Automaton also has a list of neighbor Automata (their memory addresses), and weights for each of these neighbors. Thus, you can distance-weight the neighbors (so that corner elements are farther away), and very generalized neighbor models are possible (e.g., all lattice sites within a certain distance).  When updating a cellular automaton model, such as to kill a cell, divide it, or move it, you leave the neighbor information alone, and copy/edit the information (standard_data, custom_data, current_state_rule, custom_rule). In many ways, an Automaton is just a bucket with a cell’s information in it.

Note that each Automaton also “knows” where it lives (pMicroenvironment and voxel_index), and knows what CA_Mesh it is attached to (more below).

Connecting Automata into a Lattice

An automaton by itself is lost in the world–it needs to link up into a lattice organization. Here’s where we define a CA_Mesh class, to hold the entire collection of Automata, setup functions (to match to the microenvironment), and two fundamental operations at the mesh level: copying automata (for cell division), and swapping them (for motility). We have provided two functions to accomplish these tasks, while automatically keeping the indexing and BioFVM functions correctly in sync. Here’s what it looks like:

class CA_Mesh{
		Microenvironment* pMicroenvironment; 
		Cartesian_Mesh* pMesh; 

		std::vector<Automaton> automata; 
		std::vector<int> iteration_order; 
		// setup to match a supplied microenvironment 
		void setup( Microenvironment& M ); 
		// setup to match the default microenvironment 
		void setup( void );  
		int number_of_automata( void ) const; 
		void randomize_iteration_order( void );

		void swap_automata( int i, int j ); 
		void overwrite_automaton( int source_i, int destination_i ); 
		// return the automaton sitting in the ith lattice site 
		Automaton& operator[]( int i ); 
		// go through all nodes according to random shuffled order 
		void update_automata( double dt ); 

So, the CA_Mesh has a vector of Automata (which are never themselves moved), pointers to the microenvironment and its mesh, and a vector of automata indices that gives the iteration order (so that we can sample the automata in a random order). You can easily access an automaton with operator[], and copy the data from one Automaton to another with overwrite_automaton() (e.g, for cell division), and swap two Automata’s data (e.g., for cell migration) with swap_automata().  Finally, calling update_automata(dt) iterates through all the automata according to iteration_order, calls their current_state_rules and custom_rules, and advances the automata by dt.

Interfacing Automata with the BioFVM Microenvironment

The setup function ensures that the CA_Mesh is the same size as the Microenvironment.mesh, with same indexing, and that all automata have the correct volume, and dimension of uptake/secretion rates and parameters. If you declare and set up the Microenvironment first, all this is take care of just by declaring a CA_Mesh, as it seeks out the default microenvironment and sizes itself accordingly:

// declare a microenvironment
Microenvironment M;
// do things to set it up -- see prior tutorials
// declare a Cellular_Automaton_Mesh
CA_Mesh CA_model;
// it's already good to go, initialized to empty automata:

If you for some reason declare the CA_Mesh fist, you can set it up against the microenvironment:

// declare a CA_Mesh
CA_Mesh CA_model;
// declare a microenvironment
Microenvironment M;
// do things to set it up -- see prior tutorials
// initialize the CA_Mesh to match the microenvironment
CA_model.setup( M );
// it's already good to go, initialized to empty automata:

Because each Automaton is in the microenvironment and inherits functions from Basic_Agent, it can secrete or uptake. For example, we can use functions like this one:

void set_uptake( Automaton&amp; A, std::vector<double>& uptake_rates )
	extern double BioFVM_CA_diffusion_dt; 
	// update the uptake_rates in the standard_data 
	A.standard_data.uptake_rates = uptake_rates; 
	// now, transfer them to the underlying Basic_Agent
	*(A.uptake_rates) = A.standard_data.uptake_rates; 
	// and make sure the internal constants are self-consistent 
	A.set_internal_uptake_constants( BioFVM_CA_diffusion_dt ); 

A function acting on an automaton can sample the microenvironment to change parameters and state. For example:

void do_nothing( Automaton& A, double dt )
{ return; }

void microenvironment_based_rule( Automaton& A, double dt )
	// sample the microenvironment 
	std::vector<double> MS = (*A.get_microenvironment())( A.get_voxel_index() );
	// if pO2 < 5 mmHg, set the cell to a necrotic state
	if( MS[0] < 5.0 ) { A.become_necrotic(); } // if drug > 5 uM, set the birth rate to zero
	if( MS[1] > 5 )
	{ A.standard_data.birth_rate = 0.0; }
	// set the custom rule to something else
	A.custom_rule = do_nothing;

Implementing the mathematical model in this framework

We give each tumor cell a tumor_cell_rule (using this for custom_rule):

void viable_tumor_rule( Automaton& A, double dt )
	// If there's no cell here, don't bother.
	if( A.standard_data.state_code == BioFVM_CA_empty )
	{ return; }
	// sample the microenvironment
	std::vector<double> MS = (*A.get_microenvironment())( A.get_voxel_index() );

	// integrate drug exposure 
	A.standard_data.integrated_drug_exposure += ( MS[1]*dt ); 
	A.standard_data.drug_response_function_value = pow( A.standard_data.integrated_drug_exposure,
		A.standard_data.drug_hill_exponent );  
	double temp = pow( A.standard_data.drug_half_max_drug_exposure,
		A.standard_data.drug_hill_exponent );  
	temp += A.standard_data.drug_response_function_value; 
	A.standard_data.drug_response_function_value /= temp; 
	// update birth rates (which themselves update probabilities) 
	update_birth_rate( A, MS, dt ); 
	update_apoptotic_death_rate( A, MS, dt ); 
	update_necrotic_death_rate( A, MS, dt );

The functional tumor birth and death rates are implemented as:

void update_birth_rate( Automaton& A, std::vector<double>& MS, double dt )  
	static double O2_denominator = BioFVM_CA_physioxic_O2 - BioFVM_CA_necrotic_O2;
	A.standard_data.birth_rate = 	A.standard_data.drug_response_function_value;
		// response
	A.standard_data.birth_rate *= A.standard_data.drug_max_birth_inhibition;
		// inhibition*response; 
	A.standard_data.birth_rate *= -1.0;
		// - inhibition*response
	A.standard_data.birth_rate += 1.0;
		// 1 - inhibition*response
	A.standard_data.birth_rate *= viable_tumor_cell.birth_rate; 
		// birth_rate0*(1 - inhibition*response)
	double temp1 = MS[0] ; // O2 
	temp1 -= BioFVM_CA_necrotic_O2; 
	temp1 /= O2_denominator; 
	A.standard_data.birth_rate *= temp1; 
	if( A.standard_data.birth_rate < 0 )
	{ A.standard_data.birth_rate = 0.0; }

	A.standard_data.probability_of_division = A.standard_data.birth_rate;
	A.standard_data.probability_of_division *= dt; 
		// dt*birth_rate*(1 - inhibition*repsonse) // linearized probability 
void update_apoptotic_death_rate( Automaton& A, std::vector<double>& MS, double dt )  
	A.standard_data.apoptotic_death_rate = A.standard_data.drug_max_death_rate; 
		// max_rate
	A.standard_data.apoptotic_death_rate -= viable_tumor_cell.apoptotic_death_rate; 
		// max_rate - background_rate
	A.standard_data.apoptotic_death_rate *= A.standard_data.drug_response_function_value; 
		// (max_rate-background_rate)*response 
	A.standard_data.apoptotic_death_rate += viable_tumor_cell.apoptotic_death_rate; 
		// background_rate + (max_rate-background_rate)*response 

	A.standard_data.probability_of_apoptotic_death = A.standard_data.apoptotic_death_rate;
	A.standard_data.probability_of_apoptotic_death *= dt; 
		// dt*( background_rate + (max_rate-background_rate)*response ) // linearized probability

void update_necrotic_death_rate( Automaton& A, std::vector<double>& MS, double dt )   
	A.standard_data.necrotic_death_rate = 0.0; 
	A.standard_data.probability_of_necrotic_death = 0.0; 
	if( MS[0] > BioFVM_CA_necrotic_O2 )
	{ return; }

	A.standard_data.necrotic_death_rate = perinecrotic_tumor_cell.necrotic_death_rate; 
	A.standard_data.probability_of_necrotic_death = A.standard_data.necrotic_death_rate; 
	A.standard_data.probability_of_necrotic_death *= dt; 
		// dt*necrotic_death_rate


And each fluid voxel (Dirichlet nodes) is implemented as the following (to turn on therapy at 21 days):

void fluid_rule( Automaton& A, double dt )
	static double activation_time = 504; 
	static double activation_dose = 5.0; 
	static std::vector<double> activated_dirichlet( 2 , BioFVM_CA_physioxic_O2 );
	static bool initialized = false; 
	if( !initialized )
		activated_dirichlet[1] = activation_dose; 
		initialized = true; 

	if( fabs( BioFVM_CA_elapsed_time - activation_time ) < 0.01 ) { int ind = A.get_voxel_index(); if( A.get_microenvironment()->mesh.voxels[ind].is_Dirichlet )
			A.get_microenvironment()->update_dirichlet_node( ind, activated_dirichlet );

At the start of the simulation, each non-cell automaton has its custom_rule set to fluid_rule, and each tumor cell Automaton has its custom_rule set to viable_tumor_rule. Here’s how:

void setup_cellular_automata_model( Microenvironment& M, CA_Mesh& CAM )
	// Fill in this environment 
	double tumor_radius = 150;  
	double tumor_radius_squared = tumor_radius * tumor_radius; 
	std::vector<double> tumor_center( 3, 0.0 ); 
	std::vector<double> dirichlet_value( 2 , 1.0 );
	dirichlet_value[0] = 38; //physioxia
	dirichlet_value[1] = 0; // drug 
	for( int i=0 ; i < M.number_of_voxels() ;i++ )
		std::vector<double> displacement( 3, 0.0 );
		displacement = M.mesh.voxels[i].center; 
		displacement -= tumor_center; 
		double r2 = norm_squared( displacement ); 
		if( r2 > tumor_radius_squared ) // well_mixed_fluid
			M.add_dirichlet_node( i, dirichlet_value ); 
			CAM[i].copy_parameters( well_mixed_fluid );
			CAM[i].custom_rule = fluid_rule; 
			CAM[i].current_state_rule = do_nothing; 	
		else // tumor 
			CAM[i].copy_parameters( viable_tumor_cell );
			CAM[i].custom_rule = viable_tumor_rule; 
			CAM[i].current_state_rule = advance_live_state; 		

Overall program loop

There are two inherent time scales in this problem: cell processes like division and death (happen on the scale of hours), and transport (happens on the order of minutes). We take advantage of this by defining two step sizes:

double BioFVM_CA_dt = 3;
std::string BioFVM_CA_time_units = "hr";
double BioFVM_CA_save_interval = 12;
double BioFVM_CA_max_time = 24*28;
double BioFVM_CA_elapsed_time = 0.0;

double BioFVM_CA_diffusion_dt = 0.05;

std::string BioFVM_CA_transport_time_units = "min";
double BioFVM_CA_diffusion_max_time = 5.0;

Every time the simulation advances by BioFVM_CA_dt (on the order of hours), we run diffusion to quasi-steady state (for BioFVM_CA_diffusion_max_time, on the order of minutes), using time steps of size BioFVM_CA_diffusion time. We performed numerical stability and convergence analyses to determine 0.05 min works pretty well for regular lattice arrangements of cells, but you should always perform your own testing!

Here’s how it all looks, in a main program loop:

BioFVM_CA_elapsed_time = 0.0;
double next_output_time = BioFVM_CA_elapsed_time; // next time you save data

while( BioFVM_CA_elapsed_time < BioFVM_CA_max_time + 1e-10 )
	// if it's time, save the simulation
	if( fabs( BioFVM_CA_elapsed_time - next_output_time ) < BioFVM_CA_dt/2.0 )
		std::cout << "simulation time: " << BioFVM_CA_elapsed_time << " " << BioFVM_CA_time_units
			<< " (" << BioFVM_CA_max_time << " " << BioFVM_CA_time_units << " max)" << std::endl;
		char* filename;
		filename = new char [1024];
		sprintf( filename, "output_%6f" , next_output_time );
		save_BioFVM_cellular_automata_to_MultiCellDS_xml_pugi( filename , M , CA_model ,
			BioFVM_CA_elapsed_time );

		cell_counts( CA_model );
		delete [] filename;
		next_output_time += BioFVM_CA_save_interval;

	// do the cellular automaton step
	CA_model.update_automata( BioFVM_CA_dt );
	BioFVM_CA_elapsed_time += BioFVM_CA_dt;

	// simulate biotransport to quasi-steady state

	double t_diffusion = 0.0;
	while( t_diffusion < BioFVM_CA_diffusion_max_time + 1e-10 )
		M.simulate_diffusion_decay( BioFVM_CA_diffusion_dt );
		M.simulate_cell_sources_and_sinks( BioFVM_CA_diffusion_dt );
		t_diffusion += BioFVM_CA_diffusion_dt;

Getting and Running the Code

  1. Start a project: Create a new directory for your project (I’d recommend “BioFVM_CA_tumor”), and enter the directory. Place a copy of BioFVM (the zip file) into your directory. Unzip BioFVM, and copy BioFVM*.h, BioFVM*.cpp, and pugixml* files into that directory.
  2. Download the demo source code: Download the source code for this tutorial: BioFVM_CA_Example_1, version 1.0.0 or later. Unzip its contents into your project directory. Go ahead and overwrite the Makefile.
  3. Edit the makefile (if needed): Note that if you are using OSX, you’ll probably need to change from “g++” to your installed compiler. See these tutorials.
  4. Test the code: Go to a command line (see previous tutorials), and test:

    (If you’re on windows, run BioFVM_CA_Example_1.exe.)

Simulation Result

If you run the code to completion, you will simulate 3 weeks of in vitro growth, followed by a bolus “injection” of drug. The code will simulate one one additional week under the drug. (This should take 5-10 minutes, including full simulation saves every 12 hours.)

In matlab, you can load a saved dataset and check the minimum oxygenation value like this:

MCDS = read_MultiCellDS_xml( 'output_504.000000.xml' );
min(min(min( MCDS.continuum_variables(1).data )))

And then you can start visualizing like this:

contourf( MCDS.mesh.X_coordinates , MCDS.mesh.Y_coordinates , ...
MCDS.continuum_variables(1).data(:,:,33)' ) ; 
axis image; 
xlabel('x (\mum)' , 'fontsize' , 12 );
ylabel( 'y (\mum)' , 'fontsize', 12 ); 
set(gca, 'fontsize', 12 );
title('Oxygenation (mmHg) at z = 0 \mum', 'fontsize', 14 ); 
print('-dpng', 'Tumor_o2_3_weeks.png' ); 
plot_cellular_automata( MCDS , 'Tumor spheroid at 3 weeks');

Simulation plots

Here are some plots, showing (left from right) pO2 concentration, a cross-section of the tumor (red = live cells, green = apoptotic, and blue = necrotic), and the drug concentration (after start of therapy):

1 week:

o2_1 weekTumor_spheroid_at_1_week__cross_section

Oxygen- and space-limited growth are restricted to the outer boundary of the tumor spheroid.

2 weeks:

o2_2 weeks Tumor_spheroid_at_2_weeks__cross_section

Oxygenation is dipped below 5 mmHg in the center, leading to necrosis.

3 weeks:

o2_3 weeks Tumor_spheroid_at_3_weeks__cross_section

As the tumor grows, the hypoxic gradient increases, and the necrotic core grows. The code turns on a constant 5 micromolar dose of doxorubicin at this point

Treatment + 12 hours:

o2_Treatment + 12 hours Tumor_spheroid_at_Treatment_+_12_hours__cross_section drug_Treatment + 12 hours

The drug has started to penetrate the tumor, triggering apoptotic death towards the outer periphery where exposure has been greatest.

Treatment + 24 hours:

o2_Treatment + 24 hoursTumor_spheroid_at_Treatment_+_24_hours__cross_section drug_Treatment + 24 hours
The drug profile hasn’t changed much, but the interior cells have now had greater exposure to drug, and hence greater response. Now apoptosis is observed throughout the non-necrotic tumor. The tumor has decreased in volume somewhat.

Treatment + 36 hours:

o2_Treatment + 36 hours Tumor_spheroid_at_Treatment_+_36_hours__cross_sectiondrug_Treatment + 36 hours
The non-necrotic tumor is now substantially apoptotic. We would require some pharamcokinetic effects (e.g., drug clearance, inactivation, or removal) to avoid the inevitable, presences of a pre-existing resistant strain, or emergence of resistance.

Treatment + 48 hours:

o2_Treatment + 48 hours Tumor_spheroid_at_Treatment_+_48_hours__cross_sectiondrug_Treatment + 48 hours
By now, almost all cells are apoptotic.

Treatment + 60 hours:

o2_Treatment + 60 hours Tumor_spheroid_at_Treatment_+_60_hours__cross_sectiondrug_Treatment + 60 hours
The non-necrotic tumor is nearly completed eliminated, leaving a leftover core of previously-necrotic cells (which did not change state in response to the drug–they were already dead!)

Source files

You can download completed source for this example here:

This file will include the following:

  1. BioFVM_cellular_automata.h
  2. BioFVM_cellular_automata.cpp
  3. BioFVM_CA_example_1.cpp
  4. read_MultiCellDS_xml.m (updated)
  5. plot_cellular_automata.m
  6. Makefile

What’s next

I plan to update this source code with extra cell motility, and potentially more realistic parameter values. Also, I plan to more formally separate out the example from the generic cell capabilities, so that this source code can work as a bona fide cellular automaton framework.

More immediately, my next tutorial will use the reverse strategy: start with an existing cellular automaton model, and integrate BioFVM capabilities.

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Saving MultiCellDS data from BioFVM

Note: This is part of a series of “how-to” blog posts to help new users and developers of BioFVM


A major initiative for my lab has been MultiCellDS: a standard for multicellular data. The project aims to create model-neutral representations of simulation data (for both discrete and continuum models), which can also work for segmented experimental and clinical data. A single-time output is called a digital snapshot. An interdisciplinary, multi-institutional review panel has been hard at work to nail down the draft standard.

A BioFVM MultiCellDS digital snapshot includes program and user metadata (more information to be included in a forthcoming publication), an output of the microenvironment, and any cells that are secreting or uptaking substrates.

As of Version 1.1.0, BioFVM supports output saved to MultiCellDS XML files. Each download also includes a matlab function for importing MultiCellDS snapshots saved by BioFVM programs. This tutorial will get you going.

BioFVM (finite volume method for biological problems) is an open source code for solving 3-D diffusion of 1 or more substrates. It was recently published as open access in Bioinformatics here:

The project website is at, and downloads are at

Working with MultiCellDS in BioFVM programs

We include a MultiCellDS_test.cpp file in the examples directory of every BioFVM download (Version 1.1.0 or later). Create a new project directory, copy the following files to it:

  1. BioFVM*.cpp and BioFVM*.h (from the main BioFVM directory)
  2. pugixml.* (from the main BioFVM directory)
  3. Makefile and MultiCellDS_test.cpp (from the examples directory)

Open the MultiCellDS_test.cpp file to see the syntax as you read the rest of this post.

See earlier tutorials (below) if you have troubles with this.

Setting metadata values

There are few key bits of metadata. First, the program used for the simulation (all these fields are optional):

// the program name, version, and project website:
BioFVM_metadata.program.program_name = "BioFVM MultiCellDS Test";
BioFVM_metadata.program.program_version = "1.0";
BioFVM_metadata.program.program_URL = "";
// who created the program (if known)
BioFVM_metadata.program.creator.surname = "Macklin";
BioFVM_metadata.program.creator.given_names = "Paul"; = "";
BioFVM_metadata.program.creator.URL = "";
BioFVM_metadata.program.creator.organization = "University of Southern California";
BioFVM_metadata.program.creator.department = "Center for Applied Molecular Medicine";
BioFVM_metadata.program.creator.ORCID = "0000-0002-9925-0151";
// (generally peer-reviewed) citation information for the program
BioFVM_metadata.program.citation.DOI = "10.1093/bioinformatics/btv730";
BioFVM_metadata.program.citation.PMID = "26656933";
BioFVM_metadata.program.citation.PMCID = "PMC1234567";
BioFVM_metadata.program.citation.text = "A. Ghaffarizadeh, S.H. Friedman, and P. Macklin, 
    BioFVM: an efficient parallelized diffusive transport solver for 3-D biological 
    simulations, Bioinformatics, 2015. DOI: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btv730.";
BioFVM_metadata.program.citation.notes = "notes here";
BioFVM_metadata.program.citation.URL = "";
// user information: who ran the program
BioFVM_metadata.program.user.surname = "Kirk";
BioFVM_metadata.program.user.given_names = "James T."; = "";
BioFVM_metadata.program.user.organization = "Starfleet";
BioFVM_metadata.program.user.department = "U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC 1701)";
BioFVM_metadata.program.user.ORCID = "0000-0000-0000-0000";
// And finally, data citation information (the publication where this simulation snapshot appeared)
BioFVM_metadata.data_citation.DOI = "10.1093/bioinformatics/btv730";
BioFVM_metadata.data_citation.PMID = "12345678";
BioFVM_metadata.data_citation.PMCID = "PMC1234567";
BioFVM_metadata.data_citation.text = "A. Ghaffarizadeh, S.H. Friedman, and P. Macklin, BioFVM: 
    an efficient parallelized diffusive transport solver for 3-D biological simulations, Bioinformatics, 
    2015. DOI: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btv730.";
BioFVM_metadata.data_citation.notes = "notes here";
BioFVM_metadata.data_citation.URL = "";

You can sync the metadata current time, program runtime (wall time), and dimensional units using the following command. (This command is automatically run whenever you use the save command below.)

BioFVM_metadata.sync_to_microenvironment( M ); 

You can display a basic summary of the metadata via:

BioFVM_metadata.display_information( std::cout ); 

Setting options

By default (to save time and disk space), BioFVM saves the mesh as a Level 3 matlab file, whose location is embedded into the MultiCellDS XML file. You can disable this feature and revert to full XML (e.g., for human-readable cross-model reporting) via:

set_save_biofvm_mesh_as_matlab( false );

Similarly, BioFVM defaults to saving the values of the substrates in a compact Level 3 matlab file. You can override this with:

set_save_biofvm_data_as_matlab( false ); 

BioFVM by default saves the cell-centered sources and sinks. These take a lot of time to parse because they require very hierarchical data structures. You can disable saving the cells (basic_agents) via:

set_save_biofvm_cell_data( false );

Lastly, when you do save the cells, we default to a customized, minimal matlab format. You can revert to a more standard (but much larger) XML format with:

set_save_biofvm_cell_data_as_custom_matlab( false )

Saving a file

Saving the data is very straightforward:

save_BioFVM_to_MultiCellDS_xml_pugi( "sample" , M , current_simulation_time );

Your data will be saved in sample.xml. (Depending upon your options, it may generate several .mat files beginning with “sample”.)

If you’d like the filename to depend upon the simulation time, use something more like this:

double current_simulation_time = 10.347; 
char filename_base [1024]; 
sprintf( &filename_base , "sample_%f", current_simulation_time ); 
save_BioFVM_to_MultiCellDS_xml_pugi( filename_base , M,
   current_simulation_time ); 

Your data will be saved in sample_10.347000.xml. (Depending upon your options, it may generate several .mat files beginning with “sample_10.347000”.)

Compiling and running the program:

Edit the Makefile as below:


all: $(BioFVM_OBJECTS) $(pugixml_OBJECTS) MultiCellDS_test.cpp

$(COMPILE_COMMAND) -o $(PROGRAM_NAME) $(BioFVM_OBJECTS) $(pugixml_OBJECTS) MultiCellDS_test.cpp

If you’re running OSX, you’ll probably need to update the compiler from “g++”. See these tutorials.

Then, at the command prompt:


On Windows, you’ll need to run without the ./:


Working with MultiCellDS data in Matlab

Reading data in Matlab

Copy the read_MultiCellDS_xml.m file from the matlab directory (included in every MultiCellDS download). To read the data, just do this:

MCDS = read_MultiCellDS_xml( 'sample.xml' );

This should take around 30 seconds for larger data files (500,000 to 1,000,000 voxels with a few substrates, and around 250,000 cells). The long execution time is primarily because Matlab is ghastly inefficient at loops over hierarchical data structures. Increasing to 1,000,000 cells requires around 80-90 seconds to parse in matlab.

Plotting data in Matlab

Plotting the 3-D substrate data

First, let’s do some basic contour and surface plotting:

mid_index = round( length(MCDS.mesh.Z_coordinates)/2 ); 

contourf( MCDS.mesh.X(:,:,mid_index), ...
	MCDS.mesh.Y(:,:,mid_index), ... 
	MCDS.continuum_variables(2).data(:,:,mid_index) , 20 ) ; 
axis image
xlabel( sprintf( 'x (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
ylabel( sprintf( 'y (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
title( sprintf('%s (%s) at t = %f %s, z = %f %s', MCDS.continuum_variables(2).name , ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(2).units , ...
	MCDS.metadata.current_time , ...
	MCDS.metadata.time_units, ... 
	MCDS.mesh.Z_coordinates(mid_index), ...
	MCDS.metadata.spatial_units ) ); 


contourf( MCDS.mesh.X_coordinates , MCDS.mesh.Y_coordinates, ... 
	MCDS.continuum_variables(2).data(:,:,mid_index) , 20 ) ; 
axis image
xlabel( sprintf( 'x (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
ylabel( sprintf( 'y (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
title( sprintf('%s (%s) at t = %f %s, z = %f %s', ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(2).name , ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(2).units , ...
	MCDS.metadata.current_time , ...
	MCDS.metadata.time_units, ... 
	MCDS.mesh.Z_coordinates(mid_index), ...
	MCDS.metadata.spatial_units ) );  

Here’s a surface plot:

surf( MCDS.mesh.X_coordinates , MCDS.mesh.Y_coordinates, ... 
	MCDS.continuum_variables(1).data(:,:,mid_index) ) ; 
axis tight
xlabel( sprintf( 'x (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
ylabel( sprintf( 'y (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
zlabel( sprintf( '%s (%s)', MCDS.continuum_variables(1).name, ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(1).units ) ); 
title( sprintf('%s (%s) at t = %f %s, z = %f %s', MCDS.continuum_variables(1).name , ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(1).units , ...
	MCDS.metadata.current_time , ...
	MCDS.metadata.time_units, ...
	MCDS.mesh.Z_coordinates(mid_index), ...
	MCDS.metadata.spatial_units ) );

Finally, here are some more advanced plots. The first is an “exploded” stack of contour plots:

contourslice( MCDS.mesh.X , MCDS.mesh.Y, MCDS.mesh.Z , ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(2).data , [],[], ...
view([-45 10]);
axis tight; 
xlabel( sprintf( 'x (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
ylabel( sprintf( 'y (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
zlabel( sprintf( 'z (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
title( sprintf('%s (%s) at t = %f %s', ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(2).name , ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(2).units , ...
	MCDS.metadata.current_time, ... 
	MCDS.metadata.time_units ) ); 

Next, we show how to use isosurfaces with transparency

patch( isosurface( MCDS.mesh.X , MCDS.mesh.Y, MCDS.mesh.Z, ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(1).data, 1000 ), 'edgecolor', ...
	'none', 'facecolor', 'r' , 'facealpha' , 1 ); 
hold on
patch( isosurface( MCDS.mesh.X , MCDS.mesh.Y, MCDS.mesh.Z, ...
MCDS.continuum_variables(1).data, 5000 ), 'edgecolor', ...
	'none', 'facecolor', 'b' , 'facealpha' , 0.7 ); 
patch( isosurface( MCDS.mesh.X , MCDS.mesh.Y, MCDS.mesh.Z, ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(1).data, 10000 ), 'edgecolor', ...
	'none', 'facecolor', 'g' , 'facealpha' , 0.5 ); 
hold off
% shading interp 
axis image 
axis tightcamlight lighting gouraud
xlabel( sprintf( 'x (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
ylabel( sprintf( 'y (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
zlabel( sprintf( 'z (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) );
title( sprintf('%s (%s) at t = %f %s', ... 
	MCDS.continuum_variables(1).name , ...
	MCDS.continuum_variables(1).units , ...
	MCDS.metadata.current_time, ... 
	MCDS.metadata.time_units ) );

You can get more 3-D volumetric visualization ideas at Matlab’s website. This visualization post at MIT also has some great tips.

Plotting the cells

Here is a basic 3-D plot for the cells:

plot3( MCDS.discrete_cells.state.position(:,1) , ...
	MCDS.discrete_cells.state.position(:,2) , ...
	MCDS.discrete_cells.state.position(:,3) , 'bo' );
axis tight
xlabel( sprintf( 'x (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
ylabel( sprintf( 'y (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
zlabel( sprintf( 'z (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) );
title( sprintf('Cells at t = %f %s', MCDS.metadata.current_time, ...
	MCDS.metadata.time_units ) );

plot3 is more efficient than scatter3, but scatter3 will give more coloring options. Here is the syntax:

scatter3( MCDS.discrete_cells.state.position(:,1), ...
	MCDS.discrete_cells.state.position(:,2), ...
	MCDS.discrete_cells.state.position(:,3) , 'bo' );
axis tight
xlabel( sprintf( 'x (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
ylabel( sprintf( 'y (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
zlabel( sprintf( 'z (%s)' , MCDS.metadata.spatial_units) ); 
title( sprintf('Cells at t = %f %s', MCDS.metadata.current_time, ...
	MCDS.metadata.time_units ) );

Jan Poleszczuk gives some great insights on plotting many cells in 3D at his blog. I’d recommend checking out his post on visualizing a cellular automaton model. At some point, I’ll update this post with prettier plotting based on his methods.

What’s next

Future releases of BioFVM will support reading MultiCellDS snapshots (for model initialization).

Matlab is pretty slow at parsing and visualizing large amounts of data. We also plan to include resources for accessing MultiCellDS data in VTK / Paraview and Python.

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Paul Macklin calls for common standards in cancer modeling

At a recent NCI-organized mini-symposium on big data in cancer, Paul Macklin called for new data standards in Multicellular data in simulations, experiments, and clinical science. USC featured the talk (abstract here) and the work at

Read the article: (Feb. 21, 2014)

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Paul Macklin interviewed at 2013 PSOC Annual Meeting

Paul Macklin gave a plenary talk at the 2013 NIH Physical Sciences in Oncology Annual Meeting. After the talk, he gave an interview to the Pauline Davies at the NIH on the need for data standards and model compatibility in computational and mathematical modeling of cancer. Of particular interest:

Pauline Davies: How would you ever get this standardization? Who would be responsible for saying we want it all reported in this particular way?

Paul Macklin: That’s a good question. It’s a bit of the chicken and the egg problem. Who’s going to come and give you data in your standard if you don’t have a standard? How do you plan a standard without any data? And so it’s a bit interesting. I just think someone needs to step forward and show leadership and try to get a small working group together, and at the end of the day, perfect is the enemy of the good. I think you start small and give it a go, and you add more to your standard as you need it. So maybe version one is, let’s say, how quickly the cells divide, how often they do it, how quickly they die, and what their oxygen level is, and maybe their positions. And that can be version one of this standard and a few of us try it out and see what we can do. I think it really comes down to a starting group of people and a simple starting point, and you grow it as you need it.

Shortly after, the MultiCellDS project was born (using just this strategy above!), with the generous assistance of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Read / Listen to the interview: (2013)

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