Pregnancy Drugs, Fetal Germline Epigenome, and Risks for Next-Generation Pathology

A Call to Action, Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis,
Escher J, Robotti S, 19 March 2019.


Drugs taken during pregnancy can affect three generations at once:

  • the gestating woman (F0),
  • her exposed fetus (F1),
  • and the fetal germ cells that confer heritable information for the grandchildren (F2).

Unfortunately, despite growing evidence for connections between F0 drug exposures and F2 pathology, current approaches to risk assessment overlook this important dimension of risk.

In this commentary, we argue that the uniquemolecular vulnerabilities of the fetal germline, particularly with regard to global epigenomic reprogramming, combined withempirical evidence for F2 effects of F1 in utero drug and other exposures, should change the way we consider potential long-term consequences of pregnancy drugs and alter toxicology’s standard somatic paradigm.

Specifically, we

  1. suggest that pregnancy drugs common in the post-war decades should be investigated as potential contributorsto the “missing heritability” of many pathologies now surging in prevalence;
  2. call for inclusion of fetal germline risks in pregnancy drugsafety assessment;
  3. and highlight the need for intensified research to ascertain generational impacts of diethylstilbestrol (DES), a vanguard question of human germline toxicity.

Only by fully addressing this important dimension of transplacental exposure can we responsibly evaluate safety of drug exposures during pregnancy and convey the full scope of risks, while also retrospectively comprehending the generational legacy of recent history’s unprecedented glut of evolutionarily novel intrauterine exposures.

The imperative to intensify research on diethylstilbestrol F2s

“Finally, we ask that research to ascertain generational impacts of diethylstilbestrol (DES) should be intensified and broadened in scope. The DES disaster presents a paradigmatic question of human germline toxicity, and a unique opportunity to better understand generational impacts of this drug, and also the broader phenomenon of hormone disruption in humans. But while research on DES F2s has linked the exposure to a variety of pathologies, including increased risks of infertility, hypospadias, tumor growth, ovarian cancer, menstrual irregularities, and ADHD, by and large the research has been limited compared to the magnitude of exposure and the breadth of possible ensuing pathologies.

For example, the issue of neurodevelopmental outcomes and socio-sexual behavior strikes us as very important and mostly unexplored. Only one study has attempted to ascertain F2 neurodevelopmental impairments, and it indeed detected a link. Though a recent study found no evidence of same-sex orientation in female F2s borne of female DES exposed F1s, no other study has probed socio-sexual outcomes in F2s other either sex, whether through male or female F1s. We note that a recent animal study found these types of F2 effects when F0 dams were exposed to EDCs. In other words, research must think more broadly about F2 pathologies precipitated by DES exposure to also encompass the brain, cognitive ability,behavior, sexuality, and other crucial endpoints beyond the standard teratogenesis paradigm.

The urgency of more F2 research is critical not just for our affected families, but for the science of endocrine disruption generally and an entire population increasingly worried about generational effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals. DES is the bellwether of hormone disruption—given the combined existence of exposure records and possibilities for ascertainment of F2 outcomes, it uniquely shines a light on this crucial scientific question of germline and heritable effects of disrupted hormone signaling.

The primary research study looking at DES F2 outcomes in the United States is the National Cancer Institute (NCI) DES Combined Cohort Follow-Up Study formed in 1992. It consists of eight different cohort studies which totaled about 21,000 participants at inception and included DES-exposed F0 mothers, DES F1 daughters, and DES F1 sons, as well as unexposed mothers, daughters and sons. The oldest cohort started in 1971, the most recent in 1984, and two are British studies. Almost all the studies look at F2 outcomes via F1 exposed females, but not the F1 exposed males. In the initial decade, all participants of the largest of the eight cohorts, the Diethylstilbestrol Adenosis Project (DESAD), were physically examined yearly. Since that time the research inputs consist of questionnaires every five years.
While some subjects have been lost to the study due to location mobility and death, extensive attempts are made to seek all participants. Decreasing ability to do robust follow-up concerns us. We are just beginning to appreciate the effects on F2s, and indeed many effects on F1s as well, and while several other teams have published significant DES studies, many of those other efforts lack access to a database of people with confirmed medical histories of DES exposure, which presents a limitation.

A withering of efforts from what had been the primary source of research on the effects of DES represents a loss of an opportunity to learn critical lessons for understanding what may be at stake when early germ cells undergo programming in a foreign hormonal milieu.”



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