Epigenetics and Transcriptomics to Detect Adverse Drug Effects in Model Systems of Human Development

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Prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals or drugs has been associated with functional or structural deficits and the development of diseases in later life. For example, developmental neurotoxicity (DNT) is triggered by lead, and this compound may predispose to neurodegenerative diseases in later life. The molecular memory for such late consequences of early exposure is not known, but epigenetic mechanisms (modification of the chromatin structure) could take this role. Examples and underlying mechanisms have been compiled here for the field of DNT. Moreover, we addressed the question as to what readout is suitable for addressing drug memory effects. We summarize how complex developmental processes can be modelled in vitro by using the differentiation of human stem cells. Although cellular models can never replicate the final human DNT phenotype, they can model the adverse effect that a chemical has on key biological processes essential for organ formation and function. Highly information-rich transcriptomics data may inform on these changes and form the bridge from in vitro models to human prediction. We compiled data showing that transcriptome analysis can indicate toxicity patterns of drugs. A crucial question to be answered in our systems is when and how transcriptome changes indicate adversity (as opposed to transient adaptive responses), and how drug-induced changes are perpetuated over time even after washout of the drug. We present evidence for the hypothesis that changes in the histone methylation pattern could represent the persistence detector of an early insult that is transformed to an adverse effect at later time-points in life.

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