Background: Praziquantel (PZQ) is the only widely available drug to treat schistosomiasis. Given the potential for drug resistance, it is prudent to search for novel therapeutics. Identification of anti-schistosomal chemicals has traditionally relied on phenotypic (whole organism) screening with adult worms in vitro and/or animal models of disease-tools that limit automation and throughput with modern microtiter plate-formatted compound libraries.
Methods: A partially automated, three-component phenotypic screen workflow is presented that utilizes at its apex the schistosomular stage of the parasite adapted to a 96-well plate format with a throughput of 640 compounds per month. Hits that arise are subsequently screened in vitro against adult parasites and finally for efficacy in a murine model of disease. Two GO/NO GO criteria filters in the workflow prioritize hit compounds for tests in the animal disease model in accordance with a target drug profile that demands short-course oral therapy. The screen workflow was inaugurated with 2,160 chemically diverse natural and synthetic compounds, of which 821 are drugs already approved for human use. This affords a unique starting point to 'reposition' (re-profile) drugs as anti-schistosomals with potential savings in development timelines and costs.
Findings: Multiple and dynamic phenotypes could be categorized for schistosomula and adults in vitro, and a diverse set of 'hit' drugs and chemistries were identified, including anti-schistosomals, anthelmintics, antibiotics, and neuromodulators. Of those hits prioritized for tests in the animal disease model, a number of leads were identified, one of which compares reasonably well with PZQ in significantly decreasing worm and egg burdens, and disease-associated pathology. Data arising from the three components of the screen are posted online as a community resource.
Conclusions: To accelerate the identification of novel anti-schistosomals, we have developed a partially automated screen workflow that interfaces schistosomula with microtiter plate-formatted compound libraries. The workflow has identified various compounds and drugs as hits in vitro and leads, with the prescribed oral efficacy, in vivo. Efforts to improve throughput, automation, and rigor of the screening workflow are ongoing.