Autophagy is an intracellular degradation pathway for malfunctioning aggregation-prone proteins, damaged organelles, unwanted macromolecules and invading pathogens. This process is essential for maintaining cellular and tissue homeostasis that contribute to organismal survival. Autophagy dysfunction has been implicated in the pathogenesis of diverse human diseases, and therefore, therapeutic exploitation of autophagy is of potential biomedical relevance. A number of chemical screening approaches have been established for the drug discovery of autophagy modulators based on the perturbations of autophagy reporters or the clearance of autophagy substrates. These readouts can be detected by fluorescence and high-content microscopy, flow cytometry, microplate reader and immunoblotting, and the assays have evolved to enable high-throughput screening and measurement of autophagic flux. Several pharmacological modulators of autophagy have been identified that act either via the classical mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway or independently of mTOR. Many of these autophagy modulators have been demonstrated to exert beneficial effects in transgenic models of neurodegenerative disorders, cancer, infectious diseases, liver diseases, myopathies as well as in lifespan extension. This review describes the commonly used chemical screening approaches in mammalian cells and the key autophagy modulators identified through these methods, and highlights the therapeutic benefits of these compounds in specific disease contexts.
Keywords: autophagy; autophagy modulator; autophagy reporter; autophagy substrate; cancer; lifespan extension; neurodegenerative diseases; screening method.