New computer model system shown effective in toxicology testing

Tests link DDT exposure to asthma, possibly autism

A new environmental toxicity study by a Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Danish researcher has found a link between DDT exposure and asthma–and possibly also a link between DDT and autism–using a new computer modeling system that may complement the conventional laboratory animal tests done for safety purposes.

The study, “Application of Computational Systems Biology to Explore Environmental Toxicity Hazards,” by Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at HSPH, and Karine Audouze of Technical University of Denmark, was published online August 17, 2011, in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The majority of environmental chemicals have not been tested for toxic effects. Such tests are expensive and may require large numbers of animals, but the authors offer a new approach that does not even require laboratory space. By utilizing information on three-dimensional structure, an advanced computer model can predict the potential adverse effects of toxic chemicals in humans, Grandjean said.

“This new model suggests that examining particular chemicals for specific adverse effects can be done with computer modeling, reducing the need for animal experiments,” said Grandjean.

DDT, a chemical found in pesticides that are no longer used in the U.S. but are used in tropical countries to combat malaria, was chosen for the study as a wealth of data exists on the adverse effects of DDT in exposed humans. The team found that DDT interacts with several proteins involved in asthma. The study also found a potential link between the chemical and autism, but this has apparently not been studied before. The authors therefore recommend that DDT exposure should be considered in future studies of autism.

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Department of Environmental Health