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J Theor Biol. 2017 Oct 7;430:157-168. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2017.07.016. Epub 2017 Jul 18.

Sepsis reconsidered: Identifying novel metrics for behavioral landscape characterization with a high-performance computing implementation of an agent-based model.

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Department of Surgery, University of Chicago Medicine, 5841 South Maryland Ave, MC 5094, Chicago, IL 60637, USA. Electronic address:
Department of Surgery, University of Chicago Medicine, 5841 South Maryland Ave, MC 5094, Chicago, IL 60637, USA. Electronic address:



Sepsis affects nearly 1 million people in the United States per year, has a mortality rate of 28-50% and requires more than $20 billion a year in hospital costs. Over a quarter century of research has not yielded a single reliable diagnostic test or a directed therapeutic agent for sepsis. Central to this insufficiency is the fact that sepsis remains a clinical/physiological diagnosis representing a multitude of molecularly heterogeneous pathological trajectories. Advances in computational capabilities offered by High Performance Computing (HPC) platforms call for an evolution in the investigation of sepsis to attempt to define the boundaries of traditional research (bench, clinical and computational) through the use of computational proxy models. We present a novel investigatory and analytical approach, derived from how HPC resources and simulation are used in the physical sciences, to identify the epistemic boundary conditions of the study of clinical sepsis via the use of a proxy agent-based model of systemic inflammation.


Current predictive models for sepsis use correlative methods that are limited by patient heterogeneity and data sparseness. We address this issue by using an HPC version of a system-level validated agent-based model of sepsis, the Innate Immune Response ABM (IIRBM), as a proxy system in order to identify boundary conditions for the possible behavioral space for sepsis. We then apply advanced analysis derived from the study of Random Dynamical Systems (RDS) to identify novel means for characterizing system behavior and providing insight into the tractability of traditional investigatory methods.


The behavior space of the IIRABM was examined by simulating over 70 million sepsis patients for up to 90 days in a sweep across the following parameters: cardio-respiratory-metabolic resilience; microbial invasiveness; microbial toxigenesis; and degree of nosocomial exposure. In addition to using established methods for describing parameter space, we developed two novel methods for characterizing the behavior of a RDS: Probabilistic Basins of Attraction (PBoA) and Stochastic Trajectory Analysis (STA). Computationally generated behavioral landscapes demonstrated attractor structures around stochastic regions of behavior that could be described in a complementary fashion through use of PBoA and STA. The stochasticity of the boundaries of the attractors highlights the challenge for correlative attempts to characterize and classify clinical sepsis.


HPC simulations of models like the IIRABM can be used to generate approximations of the behavior space of sepsis to both establish "boundaries of futility" with respect to existing investigatory approaches and apply system engineering principles to investigate the general dynamic properties of sepsis to provide a pathway for developing control strategies. The issues that bedevil the study and treatment of sepsis, namely clinical data sparseness and inadequate experimental sampling of system behavior space, are fundamental to nearly all biomedical research, manifesting in the "Crisis of Reproducibility" at all levels. HPC-augmented simulation-based research offers an investigatory strategy more consistent with that seen in the physical sciences (which combine experiment, theory and simulation), and an opportunity to utilize the leading advances in HPC, namely deep machine learning and evolutionary computing, to form the basis of an iterative scientific process to meet the full promise of Precision Medicine (right drug, right patient, right time).


Attractors; Cytokines; Parameter space; Personalized medicine; Precision medicine; Random dynamical systems; Stochastic dynamical systems

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