Conflicting biomedical assumptions for mathematical modeling: the case of cancer metastasis

PLoS Comput Biol. 2011 Oct;7(10):e1002132. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002132. Epub 2011 Oct 6.


Computational models in biomedicine rely on biological and clinical assumptions. The selection of these assumptions contributes substantially to modeling success or failure. Assumptions used by experts at the cutting edge of research, however, are rarely explicitly described in scientific publications. One can directly collect and assess some of these assumptions through interviews and surveys. Here we investigate diversity in expert views about a complex biological phenomenon, the process of cancer metastasis. We harvested individual viewpoints from 28 experts in clinical and molecular aspects of cancer metastasis and summarized them computationally. While experts predominantly agreed on the definition of individual steps involved in metastasis, no two expert scenarios for metastasis were identical. We computed the probability that any two experts would disagree on k or fewer metastatic stages and found that any two randomly selected experts are likely to disagree about several assumptions. Considering the probability that two or more of these experts review an article or a proposal about metastatic cascades, the probability that they will disagree with elements of a proposed model approaches 1. This diversity of conceptions has clear consequences for advance and deadlock in the field. We suggest that strong, incompatible views are common in biomedicine but largely invisible to biomedical experts themselves. We built a formal Markov model of metastasis to encapsulate expert convergence and divergence regarding the entire sequence of metastatic stages. This model revealed stages of greatest disagreement, including the points at which cancer enters and leaves the bloodstream. The model provides a formal probabilistic hypothesis against which researchers can evaluate data on the process of metastasis. This would enable subsequent improvement of the model through Bayesian probabilistic update. Practically, we propose that model assumptions and hunches be harvested systematically and made available for modelers and scientists.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Computational Biology
  • Disease Progression
  • Expert Testimony
  • Humans
  • Markov Chains
  • Models, Biological*
  • Neoplasm Metastasis*