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Open Access Methodology article

Toward modular biological models: defining analog modules based on referent physiological mechanisms

Brenden K Petersen1, Glen EP Ropella2 and C Anthony Hunt3*

Author Affiliations

1 UCSF/UCB Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

2 Tempus Dictum, Inc, Portland, OR, USA

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

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BMC Systems Biology 2014, 8:95  doi:10.1186/s12918-014-0095-1

Published: 16 August 2014



Currently, most biomedical models exist in isolation. It is often difficult to reuse or integrate models or their components, in part because they are not modular. Modular components allow the modeler to think more deeply about the role of the model and to more completely address a modeling project’s requirements. In particular, modularity facilitates component reuse and model integration for models with different use cases, including the ability to exchange modules during or between simulations. The heterogeneous nature of biology and vast range of wet-lab experimental platforms call for modular models designed to satisfy a variety of use cases. We argue that software analogs of biological mechanisms are reasonable candidates for modularization. Biomimetic software mechanisms comprised of physiomimetic mechanism modules offer benefits that are unique or especially important to multi-scale, biomedical modeling and simulation.


We present a general, scientific method of modularizing mechanisms into reusable software components that we call physiomimetic mechanism modules (PMMs). PMMs utilize parametric containers that partition and expose state information into physiologically meaningful groupings. To demonstrate, we modularize four pharmacodynamic response mechanisms adapted from an in silico liver (ISL). We verified the modularization process by showing that drug clearance results from in silico experiments are identical before and after modularization. The modularized ISL achieves validation targets drawn from propranolol outflow profile data. In addition, an in silico hepatocyte culture (ISHC) is created. The ISHC uses the same PMMs and required no refactoring. The ISHC achieves validation targets drawn from propranolol intrinsic clearance data exhibiting considerable between-lab variability. The data used as validation targets for PMMs originate from both in vitro to in vivo experiments exhibiting large fold differences in time scale.


This report demonstrates the feasibility of PMMs and their usefulness across multiple model use cases. The pharmacodynamic response module developed here is robust to changes in model context and flexible in its ability to achieve validation targets in the face of considerable experimental uncertainty. Adopting the modularization methods presented here is expected to facilitate model reuse and integration, thereby accelerating the pace of biomedical research.

Modularity; Model reuse; Modeling & simulation; Mechanism; Agent-based model