• Article

Differentiating pathway-specific from non-specific effects in high-throughput toxicity data


Fay, K. A., Villeneuve, D. L., Swintek, J., Edwards, S., Nelms, M., Blackwell, B. R., & Ankley, G. T. (2018). Differentiating pathway-specific from non-specific effects in high-throughput toxicity data: A foundation for prioritizing adverse outcome pathway development. Toxicological Sciences. DOI: 10.1093/toxsci/kfy049


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ToxCast program has screened thousands of chemicals for biological activity, primarily using high-throughput in vitro bioassays. Adverse outcome pathways (AOPs) offer a means to link pathway-specific biological activities with potential apical effects relevant to risk assessors. Thus, efforts are underway to develop AOPs relevant to pathway-specific perturbations detected in ToxCast assays. Previous work identified a 'cytotoxic burst' (CTB) phenomenon wherein large numbers of the ToxCast assays begin to respond at or near test chemical concentrations that elicit cytotoxicity, and a statistical approach to defining the bounds of the CTB was developed. To focus AOP development on the molecular targets corresponding to ToxCast assays indicating pathway-specific effects, we conducted a meta-analysis to identify which assays most frequently respond at concentrations below the CTB. A preliminary list of potentially important, target-specific assays was determined by ranking assays by the fraction of chemical hits below the CTB compared to the number of chemicals tested. Additional priority assays were identified using a diagnostic-odds-ratio approach which gives greater ranking to assays with high specificity but low responsivity. Combined, the two prioritization methods identified several novel targets (e.g., peripheral benzodiazepine and progesterone receptors) to prioritize for AOP development, and affirmed the importance of a number of existing AOPs aligned with ToxCast targets (e.g., thyroperoxidase, estrogen receptor, aromatase). The prioritization approaches did not appear to be influenced by inter-assay differences in chemical bioavailability. Furthermore, the outcomes were robust based on a variety of different parameters used to define the CTB.