Data-Driven Discovery of Mathematical and Physical Relations in Oncology Data Using Human-Understandable Machine Learning

Front Artif Intell. 2021 Nov 25;4:713690. doi: 10.3389/frai.2021.713690. eCollection 2021.


For decades, researchers have used the concepts of rate of change and differential equations to model and forecast neoplastic processes. This expressive mathematical apparatus brought significant insights in oncology by describing the unregulated proliferation and host interactions of cancer cells, as well as their response to treatments. Now, these theories have been given a new life and found new applications. With the advent of routine cancer genome sequencing and the resulting abundance of data, oncology now builds an "arsenal" of new modeling and analysis tools. Models describing the governing physical laws of tumor-host-drug interactions can be now challenged with biological data to make predictions about cancer progression. Our study joins the efforts of the mathematical and computational oncology community by introducing a novel machine learning system for data-driven discovery of mathematical and physical relations in oncology. The system utilizes computational mechanisms such as competition, cooperation, and adaptation in neural networks to simultaneously learn the statistics and the governing relations between multiple clinical data covariates. Targeting an easy adoption in clinical oncology, the solutions of our system reveal human-understandable properties and features hidden in the data. As our experiments demonstrate, our system can describe nonlinear conservation laws in cancer kinetics and growth curves, symmetries in tumor's phenotypic staging transitions, the preoperative spatial tumor distribution, and up to the nonlinear intracellular and extracellular pharmacokinetics of neoadjuvant therapies. The primary goal of our work is to enhance or improve the mechanistic understanding of cancer dynamics by exploiting heterogeneous clinical data. We demonstrate through multiple instantiations that our system is extracting an accurate human-understandable representation of the underlying dynamics of physical interactions central to typical oncology problems. Our results and evaluation demonstrate that, using simple-yet powerful-computational mechanisms, such a machine learning system can support clinical decision-making. To this end, our system is a representative tool of the field of mathematical and computational oncology and offers a bridge between the data, the modeler, the data scientist, and the practicing clinician.

Keywords: clinical data; data-driven predictions; decision support system; machine learning; mathematical oncology; mechanistic modeling.