Researchers offer primer on simulation modelling for immunologists

Simulation modelling is a powerful tool for understanding how different components of a complex system interact with one another, which makes it an ideal candidate for studying the body’s front line of defense against disease – the immune system.

Yet, most immunologists, who study the immune system’s complex network of structures and processes, are unfamiliar with simulation modelling tools.

That’s what motivated University of Georgia faculty and mathematical modelling expert Andreas Handel and his two co-authors to write an introduction and review of these models for Nature Reviews Immunology.

“The idea is to introduce bench immunologists to a tool set that they probably don’t know about,” said Handel, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in UGA’s College of Public Health.

Most immunologists, he says, are familiar with the classic statistical models, but these types of models aren’t suited for investigating the interaction of system components, say how viruses and antibodies interact, or describing how a system works.

Mastery of simulation modeling would allow immunologists to study how the body responds to infection, allergens, cancer, and autoimmune conditions.

Simulation models have been used in the study of infectious disease and epidemiology for over one hundred years, and much of the development of these models originated in these fields.

Immunology only recently became quantitative enough for these models to work, said Handel.

The review paper covers several examples of how models have been used to study the dynamics of influenza, HIV, and other infectious diseases as well as how immunologists could deploy simulation models in their own research.

This could ultimately benefit public health.

“If they have a different set of tools, then they can potentially answer questions that they otherwise couldn’t answer,” said Handel. “If we understand more about immunology, then of course we understand more about things like treatment and vaccines and so on.”

Though Handel admits that the impact at the population level is many steps removed from the host-level work immunologists do.

In addition to this review, Handel also recently developed and launched a free software package for immunologists to learn more about modelling in immunology without needing to write computer code.

The package called Dynamical Systems Approach to Immune Response Modelling is available online here:

Co-authors of this review are Nicole La Gruta, Monash University in Australia, and Paul G. Thomas, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

– Lauren Baggett

Posted on December 10, 2019.

Additional coverage at ASPPH Friday Letter.