Issue 4, 2011

Phenotypic transition maps of 3D breast acini obtained by imaging-guided agent-based modeling


We introduce an agent-based model of epithelial cell morphogenesis to explore the complex interplay between apoptosis, proliferation, and polarization. By varying the activity levels of these mechanisms we derived phenotypic transition maps of normal and aberrant morphogenesis. These maps identify homeostatic ranges and morphologic stability conditions. The agent-based model was parameterized and validated using novel high-content image analysis of mammary acini morphogenesisin vitro with focus on time-dependent cell densities, proliferation and death rates, as well as acini morphologies. Model simulations reveal apoptosis being necessary and sufficient for initiating lumen formation, but cell polarization being the pivotal mechanism for maintaining physiological epithelium morphology and acini sphericity. Furthermore, simulations highlight that acinus growth arrest in normal acini can be achieved by controlling the fraction of proliferating cells. Interestingly, our simulations reveal a synergism between polarization and apoptosis in enhancing growth arrest. After validating the model with experimental data from a normal human breast line (MCF10A), the system was challenged to predict the growth of MCF10A where AKT-1 was overexpressed, leading to reduced apoptosis. As previously reported, this led to non growth-arrested acini, with very large sizes and partially filled lumen. However, surprisingly, image analysis revealed a much lower nuclear density than observed for normal acini. The growth kinetics indicates that these acini grew faster than the cells comprising it. The in silico model could not replicate this behavior, contradicting the classic paradigm that ductal carcinoma in situ is only the result of high proliferation and low apoptosis. Our simulations suggest that overexpression of AKT-1 must also perturb cell–cell and cell–ECM communication, reminding us that extracellular context can dictate cellular behavior.

Graphical abstract: Phenotypic transition maps of 3D breast acini obtained by imaging-guided agent-based modeling

Supplementary files

Article information

Article type
01 Sep 2010
01 Feb 2011
First published
04 Mar 2011

Integr. Biol., 2011,3, 408-421