Development and Validation of a Phenotypic High-Content Imaging Assay for Assessing the Antiviral Activity of Small-Molecule Inhibitors Targeting Zika Virus

Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2018 Sep 24;62(10):e00725-18. doi: 10.1128/AAC.00725-18. Print 2018 Oct.


Zika virus (ZIKV) has been linked to the development of microcephaly in newborns, as well as Guillain-Barré syndrome. There are currently no drugs available to treat ZIKV infection, and accordingly, there is an unmet medical need for the discovery of new therapies. High-throughput drug screening efforts focusing on indirect readouts of cell viability are prone to a higher frequency of false positives in cases where the virus is viable in the cell but the cytopathic effect (CPE) is reduced or delayed. Here, we describe a fast and label-free phenotypic high-content imaging assay to detect cells affected by the virus-induced CPE using automated imaging and analysis. Protection from the CPE correlates with a decrease in viral antigen production, as observed by immunofluorescence. We trained our assay using a collection of nucleoside analogues with activity against ZIKV; the previously reported antiviral activities of 2'-C-methylribonucleosides and ribavirin against the Zika virus in Vero cells were confirmed using our developed method. To validate the ability of our assay to reveal new anti-ZIKV compounds, we profiled a novel library of 24 natural product derivatives and found compound 1 to be an inhibitor of the ZIKV-induced cytopathic effect; the activity of the compound was confirmed in human fetal neural stem cells (NSCs). The described technique can be easily leveraged as a primary screening assay for profiling of the activities of large compound libraries against ZIKV and can be expanded to other ZIKV strains and other cell lines displaying morphological changes upon ZIKV infection.

Keywords: Zika virus; antiviral agents; cellular imaging; high-throughput screening.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antiviral Agents / chemistry
  • Antiviral Agents / pharmacology*
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Vero Cells
  • Zika Virus / drug effects*
  • Zika Virus Infection / virology


  • Antiviral Agents