Identifying Small Molecules which Inhibit Autophagy: a Phenotypic Screen Using Image-Based High-Content Cell Analysis

J.V. Peppard1, *, C. Rugg1, M. Smicker1, C. Dureuil2, B. Ronan2, O. Flamand2, L. Durand2, B. Pasquier2, *
1 Lead Generation and Candidate Realization, R&D, Bridgewater, NJ 07059, U.S.A
2 Oncology R&D, Sanofi, 94403, Vitry-Sur-Seine, France

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© Peppard et al.; Licensee Bentham Open.

open-access license: This is an open access article licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted, non-commercial use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the work is properly cited.

* Address correspondence to these authors at the Sanofi Tucson Innovation Center, 2090 Innovation Park Drive, Tucson, Arizona 85755, U.S.A; Tel +1 520 544 6875; Fax +1 520 544 6804; E-mail: jane.peppard@sanofi, and Oncology R&D, Sanofi, 94403 Vitry-sur-Seine, France; Tel +33 1 58 93 89 93; Fax: +33 1 58 93 34 71; E-mail:


Autophagy plays an important role in cancer and it has been suggested that it functions not only as a tumor suppressor pathway to prevent tumor initiation, but also as a pro-survival pathway that helps tumor cells endure metabolic stress and resist death triggered by chemotherapeutic agents, including acquired resistance. We aimed to identify small-molecule autophagy inhibitors using a HTS/HCA approach through a phenotypic, cell image-based assay, in order to screen multiple biological targets simultaneously and to screen compounds in a physiologically relevant environment. LC3 is a component of the autophagosome, which undergoes a cytoplasmic redistribution from diffuse to punctate dots during autophagy. We employed HeLa cells stably expressing EGFP-LC3 in a primary phenotypic screen. As a first step, a “Validation Library” of about 8,000 pre-selected compounds, about 25% of which had known biological activity and the others representing a range of chemical structures, was run in duplicate both to assess screening suitability and likely hit rate, and to give a valuable preview of possible active structures or biological targets. The primary screen of about 0.25 million compounds yielded around 10,500 positive compounds. These were tested in a suite of further cellular assays designed to eliminate unwanted positives, together with the application of chemi- and bioinformatics to pick out compounds with known biological activity. These processes enabled the selection of compounds that were the most promisingly active and specific. The screening “tree” identified, amongst others with as yet unidentified targets, chemical series active against autophagy-relevant biological targets ULK or Vsp34, validating the phenotypic screening methods selected. Finally, about 400 compounds were fully qualified after following this triage. The development of the assays, compound screening process and the compound triage is described.

Keywords : HTS, phenotypic screening, autophagy, LC3, inhibitors, image-based screening, high-content screening.