Aflatoxins are toxic compounds produced by molds of the Aspergillus species that contaminate food primarily in tropical countries. The most toxic aflatoxin, aflatoxin B1 (AFB1), is a major cause of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in these countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, aflatoxin contamination is common, and perinatal AFB1 exposure has been linked to the early onset of HCC. Epigenetic programming, including changes to DNA methylation, is one mechanism by which early life exposures can lead to adult disease. This study aims to elucidate whether perinatal AFB1 exposure alters markers of offspring health including weight, lipid, and hormone profiles as well as epigenetic regulation that may later influence cancer risk. Pregnant rats were exposed to two doses of AFB1 (low 0.5 and high 5 mg/kg) before conception, throughout pregnancy, and while weaning and compared to an unexposed group. Offspring from each group were followed to 3 weeks or 3 months of age, and their blood and liver samples were collected. Body weights and lipids were assessed at 3 weeks and 3 months while reproductive, gonadotropic, and thyroid hormones were assessed at 3 months. Prenatal AFB1 (high dose) exposure resulted in significant 16.3%, 31.6%, and 7.5% decreases in weight of the offspring at birth, 3 weeks, and 3 months, respectively. Both doses of exposure altered lipid and hormone profiles. Pyrosequencing was used to quantify percent DNA methylation at tumor suppressor gene Tp53 and growth-regulator H19 in DNA from liver and blood. Results were compared between the control and AFB1 exposure groups in 3-week liver samples and 3-week and 3-month blood samples. Relative to controls, Tp53 DNA methylation in both low- and high-dose exposed rats was significantly decreased in liver samples and increased in the blood (p < 0.05 in linear mixed models). H19 methylation was higher in the liver from low- and high-exposed rats and decreased in 3-month blood samples from the high exposure group (p < 0.05). Further research is warranted to determine whether such hormone, lipid, and epigenetic alterations from AFB1 exposure early in life play a role in the development of early-onset HCC.
Keywords: DNA methylation; aflatoxin B1; developmental origins of health and disease; gestational exposure; hormones; lipid; liver.