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A Three-Dimensional Organoid Culture Model to Assess the Influence of Chemicals on Morphogenetic Fusion

Embryologic development involves cell differentiation and organization events that are unique to each tissue and organ and are susceptible to developmental toxicants. Animal models are the gold standard for identifying putative teratogens, but the limited throughput of developmental toxicological studies in animals coupled with the limited concordance between animal and human teratogenicity motivates a different approach. In vitro organoid models can mimic the three-dimensional (3D) morphogenesis of developing tissues and can thus be useful tools for studying developmental toxicology. Common themes during development like the involvement of epithelial-mesenchymal transition and tissue fusion present an opportunity to develop in vitro organoid models that capture key morphogenesis events that occur in the embryo. We previously described organoids composed of human stem and progenitor cells that recapitulated the cellular features of palate fusion, and here we further characterized the model by examining pharmacological inhibitors targeting known palatogenesis and epithelial morphogenesis pathways as well as 12 cleft palate teratogens identified from rodent models. Organoid survival was dependent on signaling through EGF, IGF, HGF, and FGF pathways, and organoid fusion was disrupted by inhibition of BMP signaling. We observed concordance between the effects of EGF, FGF, and BMP inhibitors on organoid fusion and epithelial cell migration in vitro, suggesting that organoid fusion is dependent on epithelial morphogenesis. Three of the 12 putative cleft palate teratogens studied here (theophylline, triamcinolone, and valproic acid) significantly disrupted in vitro organoid fusion, while tributyltin chloride and all-trans retinoic acid were cytotoxic to fusing organoids. The study herein demonstrates the utility of the in vitro fusion assay for identifying chemicals that disrupt human organoid morphogenesis in a scalable format amenable to toxicology screening.

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