Harnessing In Silico, In Vitro, and In Vivo Data to Understand the Toxicity Landscape of Polycyclic Aromatic Compounds (PACs)

Chem Res Toxicol. 2021 Feb 15;34(2):268-285. doi: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.0c00213. Epub 2020 Oct 16.


Polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) are compounds with a minimum of two six-atom aromatic fused rings. PACs arise from incomplete combustion or thermal decomposition of organic matter and are ubiquitous in the environment. Within PACs, carcinogenicity is generally regarded to be the most important public health concern. However, toxicity in other systems (reproductive and developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity) has also been reported. Despite the large number of PACs identified in the environment, research attention to understand exposure and health effects of PACs has focused on a relatively limited subset, namely polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the PACs with only carbon and hydrogen atoms. To triage the rest of the vast number of PACs for more resource-intensive testing, we developed a data-driven approach to contextualize hazard characterization of PACs, by leveraging the available data from various data streams (in silico toxicity, in vitro activity, structural fingerprints, and in vivo data availability). The PACs were clustered on the basis of their in silico toxicity profiles containing predictions from 8 different categories (carcinogenicity, cardiotoxicity, developmental toxicity, genotoxicity, hepatotoxicity, neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, and urinary toxicity). We found that PACs with the same parent structure (e.g., fluorene) could have diverse in silico toxicity profiles. In contrast, PACs with similar substituted groups (e.g., alkylated-PAHs) or heterocyclics (e.g., N-PACs) with varying ring sizes could have similar in silico toxicity profiles, suggesting that these groups are better candidates for toxicity read-across analysis. The clusters/regions associated with certain in silico toxicity, in vitro activity, and structural fingerprints were identified. We found that genotoxicity/carcinogenicity (in silico toxicity) and xenobiotic homeostasis and stress response (in vitro activity), respectively, dominate the toxicity/activity variation seen in the PACs. The "hot spots" with enriched toxicity/activity in conjunction with availability of in vivo carcinogenicity data revealed regions of either data-poor (hydroxylated-PAHs) or data-rich (unsubstituted, parent PAHs) PACs. These regions offer potential targets for prioritization of further in vivo assessment and for chemical read-across efforts. The analysis results are searchable through an interactive web application (https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/pacs_tableau), allowing for alternative hypothesis generation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Monitoring*
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / toxicity*
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Toxicity Tests*


  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons