CellBox: Interpretable Machine Learning for Perturbation Biology with Application to the Design of Cancer Combination Therapy

Cell Syst. 2021 Feb 17;12(2):128-140.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.cels.2020.11.013. Epub 2020 Dec 28.


Systematic perturbation of cells followed by comprehensive measurements of molecular and phenotypic responses provides informative data resources for constructing computational models of cell biology. Models that generalize well beyond training data can be used to identify combinatorial perturbations of potential therapeutic interest. Major challenges for machine learning on large biological datasets are to find global optima in a complex multidimensional space and mechanistically interpret the solutions. To address these challenges, we introduce a hybrid approach that combines explicit mathematical models of cell dynamics with a machine-learning framework, implemented in TensorFlow. We tested the modeling framework on a perturbation-response dataset of a melanoma cell line after drug treatments. The models can be efficiently trained to describe cellular behavior accurately. Even though completely data driven and independent of prior knowledge, the resulting de novo network models recapitulate some known interactions. The approach is readily applicable to various kinetic models of cell biology. A record of this paper's Transparent Peer Review process is included in the Supplemental Information.

Keywords: cancer; cell dynamics; combinatorial therapy; dynamical systems; interpretability; machine learning; network pharmacology; perturbation biology; systems biology.

Publication types

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