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First trimester mechanisms of gestational sac placental and foetal teratogenicity: a framework for birth cohort studies
Human Reproduction Update  (IF15.61),  Pub Date : 2021-03-01, DOI: 10.1093/humupd/dmaa063
Adibi J, Layden A, Birru R, et al.

The function of the gestational sac (GS) and the placenta in the closely related processes of embryogenesis and teratogenicity in the first trimester has been minimally described. The prevailing assumption is that direct teratogenic effects are mediated by the critical extraembryonic organ, the placenta, which either blocks or transfers exposures to the foetus. Placental transfer is a dominant mechanism, but there are other paradigms by which the placenta can mediate teratogenic effects. Knowledge of these paradigms and first trimester human developmental biology can be useful to the epidemiologist in the conduct of biomarker-based studies of both maternal and child health.
Our aim is to provide a causal framework for modelling the teratogenic effects of first trimester exposures on child health outcomes mediated by the GS and placenta using biomarker data collected in the first trimester. We initially present first trimester human developmental biology for the sake of informing and strengthening epidemiologic approaches. We then propose analytic approaches of modelling placental mechanisms by way of causal diagrams using classical non-embryolethal teratogens (diethylstilboestrol [DES], folic acid deficiency and cytomegalovirus [CMV]) as illustrative examples. We extend this framework to two chronic exposures of particular current interest, phthalates and maternal adiposity.
Information on teratogens was identified by a non-systematic, narrative review. For each teratogen, we included papers that answered the five following questions: (i) why were these exposures declared teratogens? (ii) is there a consensus on biologic mechanism? (iii) is there reported evidence of a placental mechanism? (iv) can we construct a theoretical model of a placental mechanism? and (v) can this knowledge inform future work on measurement and modelling of placental-foetal teratogenesis? We prioritized literature specific to human development, the organogenesis window in the first trimester and non-embryolethal mechanisms.
As a result of our review of the literature on five exposures considered harmful in the first trimester, we developed four analytic strategies to address first trimester placental mechanisms in birth cohort studies: placental transfer and direct effects on the foetus (DES and maternal adiposity), indirect effects through targeted placental molecular pathways (DES and phthalates), pre-placental effects through disruptions in embryonic and extraembryonic tissue layer differentiation (folic acid deficiency), and multi-step mechanisms that involve maternal, placental and foetal immune function and inflammation (DES and CMV).
The significance of this review is to offer a causal approach to classify the large number of potentially harmful exposures in pregnancy when the exposure occurs in the first trimester. Our review will facilitate future research by advancing knowledge of the first trimester mechanisms necessary for researchers to effectively associate environmental exposures with child health outcomes.