Epigenetics – relevance to drug safety science
Epigenetics describes the study of heritable changes in gene expression that occur in the absence of a change to the DNA sequence. Specific patterns of epigenetic signatures can be stably transmitted through mitosis and cell division and form the molecular basis for developmental stage- and cell type-specific gene expression. Associations have been observed that endogenous and exogenous stimuli can change the epigenetic control of both somatic and stem cell differentiation and thus influence phenotypic behaviours and/or disease progression. In relation to drug safety, DNA methylation changes have been identified in many stages of tumour development following exposure to non-genotoxic carcinogens. However, it is not clear whether DNA methylation changes cause cancer, or arise as a consequence of the transformed state. Toxic agents could act at different levels, by directly modifying the epigenome or indirectly by altering signalling pathways. These alterations in chromatin structure may or may not be heritable but are probably reversible. That said, there is currently insufficient data to support inclusion of epigenetic profiling into pre-clinical evaluation studies. Several international collaborations aim to generate data to determine whether epigenetic modifications are causal links in disease and/or tumour progression. It will only be when an understanding of chemical mode-of-action is required that evaluation of epigenetic changes might be considered. The current toxicological testing battery is expected to identify any potential adverse effects regardless of the mechanism, epigenetic or otherwise. It is recommended that toxicologists keep a close watch of new developments in this field, in particular identification of early epigenetic markers for non-genotoxic carcinogenicity. Scientific collaborations between academia and industry will help to understand inter-individual variations in response to drug and toxin exposure to be able to distinguish between adverse and non-adverse epigenetic changes.