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Open Access Research article

Essential operating principles for tumor spheroid growth

Jesse A Engelberg12, Glen EP Ropella2 and C Anthony Hunt12*

Author Affiliations

1 UCSF/UC Berkeley Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering, University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA

2 The Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA

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BMC Systems Biology 2008, 2:110  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-2-110

Published: 23 December 2008



Our objective was to discover in silico axioms that are plausible representations of the operating principles realized during characteristic growth of EMT6/Ro mouse mammary tumor spheroids in culture. To reach that objective we engineered and iteratively falsified an agent-based analogue of EMT6 spheroid growth. EMT6 spheroids display consistent and predictable growth characteristics, implying that individual cell behaviors are tightly controlled and regulated. An approach to understanding how individual cell behaviors contribute to system behaviors is to discover a set of principles that enable abstract agents to exhibit closely analogous behaviors using only information available in an agent's immediate environment. We listed key attributes of EMT6 spheroid growth, which became our behavioral targets. Included were the development of a necrotic core surrounded by quiescent and proliferating cells, and growth data at two distinct levels of nutrient.


We then created an analogue made up of quasi-autonomous software agents and an abstract environment in which they could operate. The system was designed so that upon execution it could mimic EMT6 cells forming spheroids in culture. Each agent used an identical set of axiomatic operating principles. In sequence, we used the list of targeted attributes to falsify and revise these axioms, until the analogue exhibited behaviors and attributes that were within prespecified ranges of those targeted, thereby achieving a level of validation.


The finalized analogue required nine axioms. We posit that the validated analogue's operating principles are reasonable representations of those utilized by EMT6/Ro cells during tumor spheroid development.