The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, with tractable genetics and a well-defined nervous system, provides a unique whole-animal model system to identify novel drug targets and therapies for neurodegenerative diseases. Large-scale drug or target screens in models that recapitulate the subtle age- and cell-specific aspects of neurodegenerative diseases are limited by a technological requirement for high-throughput analysis of neuronal morphology. Recently, we developed a single-copy model of amyloid precursor protein (SC_APP) induced neurodegeneration that exhibits progressive degeneration of select cholinergic neurons. Our previous work with this model suggests that small molecule ligands of the sigma 2 receptor (σ2R), which was recently cloned and identified as transmembrane protein 97 (TMEM97), are neuroprotective. To determine structure-activity relationships for unexplored chemical space in our σ2R/Tmem97 ligand collection, we developed an in vivo high-content screening (HCS) assay to identify potential drug leads. The HCS assay uses our recently developed large-scale microfluidic immobilization chip and automated imaging platform. We discovered norbenzomorphans that reduced neurodegeneration in our C. elegans model, including two compounds that demonstrated significant neuroprotective activity at multiple doses. These findings provide further evidence that σ2R/Tmem97-binding norbenzomorphans may represent a new drug class for treating neurodegenerative diseases.
Keywords: APP model; Alzheimer’s disease; C. elegans, cholinergic neurons; Neurodegeneration; PGRMC1; amyloid precursor protein; automation; high-content screening; high-resolution microscopy; high-throughput screening; image analysis; in vivo drug screening; microfluidics; neurodegenerative disease models; neuronal phenotyping; norbenzomorphans; phenotypic screening; σ2R/TMEM97.