DES multigenerational assay data interpretation

Comparison of the developmental and reproductive toxicity of diethylstilbestrol administered to rats in utero, lactationally, preweaning, or postweaning

2002 Study Abstract

The objective of the study was to determine which period of exposure produces the most marked effects on the reproductive capacity and sexual development of the rat, with particular emphasis on the relative sensitivity of in utero and postnatal exposures.

The endocrine active chemical, diethylstilbestrol (DES) was used as an agent known to affect many of the endpoints examined. Hitherto, such comparisons have been made between studies, rather than within a study. Our data will be helpful in the interpretation of future multigenerational assay data.

In preliminary studies, DES was shown to be active in the immature rat uterotrophic assay with a lowest detected dose of 0.05 mg DES/kg body weight by sc injection and 10 mg DES/l (1.6 mg DES/kg body weight) by administration in drinking water. A dose of 60 microg DES/l drinking water ( approximately 6.5mg DES/kg body weight/day) was selected for the main study since this represented the midpoint of the drinking water uterotrophic dose response and produced no overt maternal toxicity. The study used 10 groups of concomitantly pregnant animals, including 2 control groups. The first comparison was between the effects of exposure to DES in utero, and exposure from conception to weaning. Another group of animals was exposed to DES in utero and cross-fostered to untreated pregnant females to prevent lactational transfer of DES to pups. Two groups were exposed to DES neonatally, either from birth to postnatal day (PND) 10 (pups thus having only lactational exposure), or from birth until weaning (PND 21; pups thus having both lactational exposure and self-exposure via drinking water). In addition, a dose response study to DES was conducted on animals exposed from weaning to PND 100, when the first phase of the study was terminated. Pups exposed to DES in utero and pups exposed from weaning to PND 100 were bred to assess fertility of the F1 animals and the sexual development of F2 offspring. This last comparison was to determine the extent to which weanling rats could be used in endocrine toxicity studies to assess their potential to show activity in utero. The most sensitive period of exposure for inducing developmental effects in F1 animals was from weaning onwards. The neonatal to weaning period (PND 1-21) was the next most sensitive. Essentially no effects were induced in F1 animals exposed in utero. No effects of any kind were observed in animals only exposed over the early neonatal period of PND 1-10. The mean day of vaginal opening, testes descent, and prepuce separation was only altered in groups where postnatal exposure to DES continued beyond PND 10, or was started at weaning. No changes were observed in anogenital distance or caudal sperm counts. Some changes in organ weights were observed, but the interpretation of these was often confused by concomitant changes in body weight. In general, histopathological examination of tissues yielded no additional information. In breeding studies with animals exposed to DES in utero, or from weaning, reduced litter sizes and marginal advances in the day of vaginal opening were observed in the offspring, together with changes in organ weights. However, no unique sensitivity was noted for exposure in utero. Evaluation of the several exposure periods and the many markers monitored in this study may have individual strengths in individual cases, but when rigorously compared using the reference estrogen DES, many preconceptions regarding their absolute or relative value were not upheld. Further, each of these markers is subject to natural variability, as demonstrated by comparisons made among the 5 separate control groups available in parts of the present study. This variability increases the chance that small changes observed in endocrine toxicity studies employing small group sizes and a single control group, or no concomitant control group, may be artifactual. The most marked effects observed in this study were on the developmental landmarks in the F1 animals induced by exposures after PND 10. Some effects on developmental landmarks and organ weights were observed in F2 animals following exposure either in utero or postweaning.

This study therefore does not establish a unique role for exposures in utero or during the early neonatal period.


  • Comparison of the developmental and reproductive toxicity of diethylstilbestrol administered to rats in utero, lactationally, preweaning, or postweaning, Toxicological sciences : an official journal of the Society of Toxicology, NCBI PubMed PMID: 12075118, 2002 Jul.
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