Developing sound, useful and usable methods

The main objective of Xpop is to develop new sound and rigorous methods for statistical modeling in the field of biology and life sciences. These methods for modeling include statistical methods of estimation, model diagnostics, model building and model selection as well as methods for numerical models (systems of ordinary and partial differential equations). Historically, the key area where these methods have been used is population pharmacokinetics. However, the framework is currently being extended to sophisticated numerical models in the contexts of viral dynamics, glucose-insulin processes, tumor growth, precision medicine, spectrometry, intracellular processes, etc.

Furthermore, an important aim of Xpop is to transfer the methods developed into software packages so that they can be used in everyday practice.

Combining numerical, statistical and stochastic components of a model

Mathematical models that characterize complex biological phenomena are defined by systems of ordinary differential equations when dealing with dynamical systems that evolve with respect to time, or by partial differential equations when there is a spatial component in the model. Also, it is sometimes useful to integrate a stochastic aspect into the dynamical system in order to model stochastic intra-individual variability.

In order to use such methods, we must deal with complex numerical difficulties, generally related to resolving the systems of differential equations. Furthermore, to be able to check the quality of a model (i.e. its descriptive and predictive performances), we require data. The statistical aspect of the model is thus critical in how it takes into account different sources of variability and uncertainty, especially when data come from several individuals and we are interested in characterizing the inter-subject variability. Here, the tools of reference are mixed-effects models.

Confronted with such complex modeling problems, one of the goals of Xpop is to show the importance of combining numerical, statistical and stochastic approaches.

Developing future standards

Linear mixed-effects models have been well-used in statistics for a long time. They are a classical approach, essentially relying on matrix calculations in Gaussian models. Whereas a solid theoretical base has been developed for such models, nonlinear mixed-effects models (NLMEM) have received much less attention in the statistics community, even though they have been applied to many domains of interest. It has thus been the users of these models, such as pharmacometricians, who have taken them and developed methods, without really looking to develop a clean theoretical framework or understand the mathematical properties of the methods. This is why a standard estimation method in NLMEM is to linearize the model, and few people have been interested in understanding the properties of estimators obtained in this way.

Statisticians and pharmacometricians frequently realize the need to create bridges between these two communities. We are entirely convinced that this requires the development of new standards for population modeling that can be widely accepted by these various communities. These standards include the language used for encoding a model, the approach for representing a model and the methods for using it:

The approach. Our approach consists in seeing a model as hierarchical, represented by a joint probability distribution. This joint distribution can be decomposed into a product of conditional distributions, each associated with a submodel (model for observations, individual parameters, etc.). Tasks required of the modeler are thus related to these probability distributions.

The methods. Many tests have shown that algorithms implemented in Monolix are the most reliable, all the while being extremely fast. In fact, these algorithms are precisely described and published in well known statistical journals. In particular, the SAEM algorithm, used for calculating the maximum likelihood estimation of population parameters, has shown its worth in numerous situations. Its mathematical convergence has also been proven under quite general hypotheses.

The language. Mlxtran is used by Monolix and other modeling tools and is today by far the most advanced language for representing models. Initially developed for representing pharmacometric models, its syntax also allows it to easily code dynamical systems defined by a system of ODEs, and statistical models involving continuous, discrete and survival variables. This flexibility is a true advantage both for numerical modelers and statisticians.

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