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Explanation Container in Case-Based Biomedical Question-Answering

by   Prateek Goel, et al.

The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences(NCATS) Biomedical Data Translator (Translator) aims to attenuate problems faced by translational scientists. Translator is a multi-agent architecture consisting of six autonomous relay agents (ARAs) and eight knowledge providers (KPs). In this paper, we present the design of the Explanatory Agent (xARA), a case-based ARA that answers biomedical queries by accessing multiple KPs, ranking results, and explaining the ranking of results. The Explanatory Agent is designed with five knowledge containers that include the four original knowledge containers and one additional container for explanation - the Explanation Container. The Explanation Container is case-based and designed with its own knowledge containers.


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1 Introduction

Despite numerous harmonization and data integration efforts in the past decade, the breadth, complexity, and heterogeneity of biomedical knowledge and data remain challenging hurdles for researchers in translational science. The ability to submit a biomedical question to a centralized system to quickly receive actionable information is an attractive goal, but has been complicated due to numerous factors. These include the use of competing or otherwise separate data integration services, where each may provide partial answers to a question, but also require some level of expertise to use and integrate for interpretable answers. The Biomedical Data Translator (Translator) aims to link existing biomedical knowledge sources and data integration services to deliver actionable answers to crucial questions in support of patients’ well-being.

The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) defines translation as . . . the process of turning observations in the laboratory, clinic and community into interventions that improve the health of individuals and the public — from diagnostics and therapeutics to medical procedures and behavioural changes. p. 455 [4]. The term that inspired the name of the system discussed herein is widely used in biomedical science.

To tackle the size of biomedical data and make it available for real-time use, Translator is designed as a multi-agent system where users can pose biomedical queries and obtain responses that integrate multiple data and knowledge sources. This paper describes the design of one of its agents, the Explanatory Agent (xARA). xARA is integrated with the Translator as one of six Automated Relay Agents (ARAs) that provide responses to biomedical user queries. xARA distinguishes itself from other ARAs by providing ranked results to biomedical queries based on explanations. To execute received queries, xARA uses the case-based reasoning (CBR) methodology to make decisions with respect to which biomedical knowledge sources to refer to and obtain results from. This paper describes the design of xARA with the four original knowledge containers [10] along with an additional one for explanations. The Explanation container, among others, can produce explanations to support and provide evidence for biomedical relations. To realize its full potential, the Explanation container’s design is case-based and maintains its own set of knowledge containers.

Section 2 elaborates on the overall design of Translator and the problems it tackles. Section 3 presents the CBR knowledge containers. Section 4 details the xARA design. Section 5 describes the application of xARA in biomedical use cases. Section 6 concludes mentioning the contributions and listing associated future work.

2 The Biomedical Data Translator

Figure 1: Knowledge sources distribution

The Translator focuses on mitigating two real-world issues associated with biomedical data. The first problem stems from the diversity of biomedical data. Biomedical data are spread in different areas of research without standardization, connection, or a common vocabulary [2]. The Venn diagram in Figure 1 exemplifies the number of knowledge sources and their integration for the listed sources. Another example is the 1,613 molecular biology databases available as of January 2019 [11]. The second problem refers to the vast scale of biomedical data, which may be too complex for humans to comprehend without elaborate methods. For these reasons, the Translator aims to link data from such databases with patient data, chemical and pharmaceutical data, clinical trials, biomedical ontologies, and possible augmentations that can support scientists while designing and refining the research questions they should prioritize. The ultimate goal of the Translator is to streamline the path from a biomedical research lab to the patient’s bedside. Along this path, the Translator shall accelerate translational research, help generate new hypotheses, and drive new innovations in clinical care and drug discovery [2].

Figure 2: The NCATS Biomedical Data Translator

The Translator system design (Figure 2)111The contents of this figure are based on the NCATS website:

incorporates three sets of interlinked components, namely, the Autonomous Relay System (ARS), the ARAs and Knowledge providers (KPs). KPs are Translator’s internal aggregators, each specializing in one or many types of knowledge. ARAs are Translator’s reasoning agents, tasked with selecting which KPs to ask for data, organizing results, ranking results, and preparing responses. The ARS breaks down user queries into the internal knowledge graph representation language and transmits them to ARAs, such as xARA, to provide actionable responses via relations obtained using the KPs. To realize this multi-agent system, the Translator’s agents utilize a standardized API language created within the consortium and the Biolink model

222 as a data model. xARA is a case-based ARA that uses five knowledge containers to rank and explain results received from KPs to answer user queries transmitted by the ARS.

3 CBR Knowledge Containers

CBR is a methodology to solve new problems by reusing previously stored problem-solution pairs. The CBR methodology can be described from two modeling perspectives, namely, the CBR Cycle [1] and the Knowledge Containers model [9, 10]. The CBR cycle presents the CBR methodology as a sequence of steps to execute the steps retrieve, reuse, revise, and retain. The knowledge containers model observes the CBR methodology from a knowledge-based perspective where its knowledge is distributed across different modules.

The four original knowledge containers are Vocabulary container, Similarity container, Case Base container and Solution Transformation container. xARA implements two of the steps in the CBR cycle, retrieve and reuse, and is designed around the knowledge containers model.

The Vocabulary container enables the agent to recognize entities from the domain. It helps to complement incomplete input by using vocabulary knowledge. The knowledge in the vocabulary container is mostly declarative (e.g., ontological), and its processes bridge the gap between varying levels of specificity of incoming problems and stored cases [10].

The Case Base container retains the contextualized experiences represented in cases, providing coverage for problems the agent has to solve. Cases are often represented as problem-solution pairs, and an outcome may be used to keep track of how successful a solution is when applied to a problem. Cases can be based on real-world experiences, artificially crafted, or adjusted from existing data.

The Similarity container keeps the knowledge required to assess similarity between a new case and the cases in the case base. For this, the Similarity container accesses the Case Base container. The Similarity container may access the Vocabulary container when cases are at different levels of specificity, or their ontological structure is relevant for assessing similarity. It is typical in CBR that the similarity functions assess similarity at the local level and then aggregate them into a global score, which is used to represent whether a candidate case comprises enough similar attributes to solve for the new case.

The Solution Transformation container consists of the knowledge required to transform the reused case or cases to correctly solve the new case. Adaptation is an important component in this container. Adaptation may be needed when there are significant differences between the new case and the reused case(s). This container may include substantial knowledge bases, and can be case-based.

Figure 3: xARA implements retrieve and reuse with five knowledge containers: Case Base, Similarity, Vocabulary, Solution, and Explanation

4 The Explanatory Agent Design

The xARA is one of the Translator’s ARAs that obtains, executes, and provides ranked and explained responses for user queries. The xARA uses biomedical expertise embedded in its cases to decide which KPs within the Translator to consult to produce answers to user’s queries. Aiming to provide useful answers, xARA relies on explanation methods, natural language understanding models, or simple rules, to rank results and indicate to users the reason a result is ranked.

The xARA implements two steps of the CBR cycle, retrieve and reuse, using five knowledge containers (Figure 3), namely, Case Base, Similarity, Solution, and Vocabulary, with an additional container for explanations. The Explanation container is case based and uses sub-containers in its design. In Figure 3, the steps retrieve and reuse are grouped with the containers they use. Note in Figure 3 that adjacent knowledge containers are those that are connected. The Similarity container needs to access the Case Base container and potentially the Vocabulary container. The Solution container may also use the Vocabulary container and it is connected to the Explanation container. The description of the containers in xARA follows.

4.0.1 The Case Base Container

The primitive cases in xARA are based on queries and responses that the KPs can return. Additionally, derived cases are created based on expansions of primitive cases. The indexing of cases includes node categories and predicates. Node categories may represent biomedical concepts such as diseases, drugs, genes, chemical reactions, and proteins. Predicates represent semantic associations between those concepts, such as treats, involved in, or contributes to. The Case Base container is used when the retrieve step uses the Similarity container to find cases.

4.0.2 The Similarity Container

The Similarity container computes scores for candidate cases to determine which ones to reuse. The xARA relies on a threshold to determine which cases will be reused. Multiple cases may be reused. The Similarity container relies on the Vocabulary container to assess similarity between nodes and predicates. The Biolink ontology 333 is used to determine how close two predicates are by way of structured similarities. There is also an associated level of specificity, given that when a specific predicate is not available, a more general predicate can be used. For example, when a query asks for drugs that inhibit a certain protein, if this exact relation is not available, the more abstract relation drugs that are correlated with that same protein may be used. The global similarity aggregates local functions and considers the relative relevance of each of the elements considered such as nodes and predicates. Their combined functionality identifies the most relevant cases for reuse.

4.0.3 The Vocabulary Container

The Vocabulary container in xARA provides support for similarity functions as mentioned above, and processes the new case into the representation used in similarity assessment. The queries may or may not be represented in the scope of the model’s knowledge or be limited in providing enough detail about the query, so the Vocabulary container helps the agent convert the query into the format the Similarity container needs for performing retrieval and identifying cases for reuse. For example, queries may indicate the specific name of a disease rather than the category Disease. The cases are indexed at the level of categories and not by specific names of entities. The functions to assess the category of a named entity is in the Vocabulary container, which enables the new case to be represented at the same specificity as the candidate cases.

4.0.4 The Solution Container

The transformation of reused cases to produce solutions include multiple steps in xARA. The first step is to extract the strategy adopted in the reused case. Because Translator data is represented as knowledge graphs, queries may consist of different configurations of nodes and edges with various hops. The case problems however are all one-hop triplets, so there may be transformations and combinations of previous cases. The Solution container also houses the functions to produce an output in accordance to Translator standards. Before preparing the final response, results received from KPs are explained and ranked in the Explanation container.

4.0.5 The Explanation Container

The need for a container for explanation data and functions stems from the fact that xARA uses various methods and external data sources to produce explanations to the results obtained from multiple KPs. The explanation container could have been potentially designed as a standalone tool, but it hasn’t; the explanation is a functionality offered by the xARA to justify how it ranks results obtained by other agents.

The explanation container relies on its own set of sub-containers: xCase Base, xSimilarity, and xSolution. As mentioned earlier, xARA explains results obtained from KPs. Consequently, the explanation functions are called after KPs return results. The results and the KP that provided the results are the input to the explanation methods, and thus describe the problems to be solved by explanation cases – xCases. xCases are retained in the xCase Base. The solution for xCases are an explanation approach. The explanation approach may utilize an explainable artificial intelligence (XAI) approach (

e.g., [5]

), it may simply cluster results, utilize a rule based on the methods adopted by the KP, or use methods based on fine-tuned language models such as BioBert


The xSimilarity container is required because the knowledge that makes a result similar to another such that their explanations can be interchangeable differs from the knowledge used for cases in the Case Base container described above. To distinguish them, the cases in the main Case Base container are referred to as query cases, while those in the Explanation container, we refer to as xCases. The similarity functions to compare nodes and predicates may be accessed from the main similarity container, but they would be aggregated differently in the explanation container, thus requiring this xSimilarity container.

The xSolution container executes the explanatory functions. However, the Explanation container does not require a designated vocabulary container because it does not need a different vocabulary as the domain is the same and the vocabulary is the same throughout the agent.

5 Use Cases

To demonstrate xARA’s ability to query KPs using CBR and to provide contextual explanations for those results, we collaborated with other members of the Translator consortium to work on several exploratory use cases. Two of these use cases are described in the following subsections.

5.0.1 Drug Re-purposing for Drug-Induced Liver Injury (DILI)

DILI is an uncommon and potentially fatal condition that can arise in patients in response to a prescribed or over-the-counter drug or herbal supplement which results in liver damage. The exact mechanisms appear to vary among patients and are not completely understood, but are thought to involve cellular mitochondrial dysfunction, metabolic abnormalities that alter hepatic cellular structure, and immune response dysfunction [8].

The primary treatment strategy is to immediately discontinue use of the offending medication or supplement. However, the possibility of using other drugs, which do not induce toxic injury, to ameliorate the effects of liver injury may be helpful. As an exploratory exercise, Translator is aiming to identify FDA-approved drugs which might be re-purposed to treat some of the symptoms of DILI.

Figure 4: Three queries submitted to investigate drug re-purposing for DILI using xARA

The strategy used by the Translator consortium in this case is to 1) identify phenotypes that are associated with DILI, 2) find genes which are correlated with these presumably pathological phenotypes, and then 3) identify drugs which target those genes’ products. The rationale is that drugs, which target gene products associated with phenotypes of DILI, may serve as candidates for treatment options.

We constructed a series of three queries, written in the Translator API standard language and submitted to xARA to select appropriate KPs to collect responses (Figure 4). From each response, an exemplary result is selected and used in the query for the next step. The results of the first query produced several phenotypes, one of them was Red blood cell count (EFO0004305). When using this phenotype in the second step to query for genes, we identified one of the results as the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) gene. This was then used in the third query (Figure 4) to identify targeting drugs, which included the drug Zidovudine.

To explain this result, xARA retrieves a method based on a relationship extraction algorithm [6], fine-tuned on BioBert [7]. The explanation solution seeks previously pre-processed publications where both biomedical entities (or one of its synonyms) is found in the same article within a distance shorter than 10 sentences. The excerpt of entailing both terms is then used as input to the relationship extraction method. When implementing this solution for the gene TERT (NCBIGene:7015) and the chemical substance Zidovudine

(CHEBI:10110), the excerpt found was classified by the algorithm as

downregulator, inhibitor, or indirect downregulator with respect to TERT. Furthermore, this editorial article discusses the effect of this drug in the context of liver disease, and provides citations to relevant literature which expands upon the topic drugs targeting liver telomerases in this context [3]. Following this line of evidence, one may hypothesize that telomere length may play a role in DILI susceptibility and thus drugs targeting this process may prove advantageous. Indeed, this association has been explored as recently as 2020, though the exact mechanism remains to be elucidated [12].

5.0.2 Drug Re-purposing for Kennedy Disease (KD)

KD is considered a rare disease, meaning that it fits the criteria of affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the US annually. It is also monogenic, meaning that it arises from the mutation or dysfunction of a single gene, in this case the androgen receptor gene AR. Clinically, KD presents itself as a progressive neuromuscular degenerative disorder almost exclusively affecting males. The age of onset occurs between the ages of 20 and 50 with symptoms such as muscle weakness, cramps, and difficulty speaking and swallowing. Other symptoms include facial weakness, numbness, infertility, tremors, and enlarged breasts.

The AR receptor is responsible for transferring signals from male sex hormones, like testosterone, across cellular membranes to affect function in a number of cell types. It is unknown exactly how mutations in AR contribute to the KD phenotype, but it is understood that females are protected from the disease, even if they carry the mutation, since they have much lower levels of circulating testosterone. 444

For this use case, the query logic was relatively straightforward and again, exploratory in nature. Two queries were used in this case. The first step was to identify genes associated with KD. As expected, only AR was returned. Since this was our only result, we fed it into the second query which identified drugs that target the AR gene (NCBI:367). Of the 194 returned, the result associating hydroxyflutamide with AR was submitted for explanation.

Similar to previous results, hydroxyflutamide was identified as an antagonist of AR. This is unsurprising as antagonism, downregulation, and inhibition are similar and common general mechanisms of drug-like agents. In this case, a direct inhibition of AR by hydroxyflutamide is logically consistent with what we know of KD, although potentially impractical. We understand that females are protected from KD by low circulating testosterone, therefore it follows that inhibiting testosterone from interacting with AR would attenuate KD phenotypes. However, the long-term effects of using male hormone blockers in KD patients would need to be carefully considered by clinicians. More critically, off-target effects of drugs like hydroxyflutamide would also need to be carefully examined before considering further investigation. In fact, one potential off-target effect is mentioned within the same extracted passage in this example: inhibition of IL-6.

5.1 Use Case Considerations

Although the caveats mentioned in the previous section are important considerations, we maintain that decisions regarding drug re-purposing or any subsequent scientific research endeavor is beyond the scope of xARA and that of Translator as a whole. Our goal is to provide supportive, contextual, and semantically-rich explanations to scientific assertions returned by KPs as well as a mechanism to relay user queries to the most relevant KP. This is in line with Translator’s goal of integrating multiple heterogeneous data and knowledge sources toward providing insights into the relationship between molecular and cellular processes and the signs and symptoms of diseases. In short, our tool is meant to augment, not replace the workflow of biomedical and translational researchers.

As such, we emphasize that these use cases represent background research and knowledge curation phases of translational research. We expected that users may wish to re-formulate queries based on the results of previous ones, perform filters on results after a query, and/or perform drill-down queries on promising results. Therefore, use cases such as the ones shown here might represent only the first pass of a series of queries with increasing refinement.

Finally, it is important to understand that the use cases presented here all come with the limitation that we selected individual answers for simplicity. In the full, standard use of xARA, all results would be expanded in subsequent batch queries to provide many more results than were demonstrated here. It is at this point that the ranking feature becomes crucial, as it will serve to filter and prioritize responses for user exploration.

6 Conclusion and Future Work

In this paper, we introduced the design of xARA, one of the agents in the Biomedical Data Translator, as an application of CBR in healthcare. The presentation of xARA was focused on its design that relies on the Knowledge Containers model proposed by Professor Michael Richter[9].

One important observation from the experience with xARA was the realization that a vocabulary sub-container was not needed for the explanation container. We believe this may be true often as the vocabulary of the system reflects a user context. Consequently, once the user context is the same, the vocabulary would not change regardless of how many containers or CBR steps are case-based.

One limitation of this presentation is lack of related works. This paper is an illustration of using CBR in the health sciences but does not aim to contribute to the biomedical question-answering approaches and therefore analyzing those works would be out of scope. The main contribution is the use of a container for explanations. With respect to its design, an ideal evaluation would be to compare it against alternative designs. The verification of the design will be done in the context of the Translator consortium. For validation, we will conduct user studies given the subjectivity of explanations.


The authors would like to thank Professor Richter (in memorium) for his many lessons. Thanks to J. Gormley, T. Zisk, and D. Corkill for their collaboration and feedback, and to E. Hinderer III for his help with use cases. Support for the preparation of this paper was provided by NCATS, through the Biomedical Data Translator program (NIH award 3OT2TR003448-01S1).


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