Targeting autophagy in disease: established and new strategies

Autophagy. 2022 Mar;18(3):473-495. doi: 10.1080/15548627.2021.1936359. Epub 2021 Jul 9.


Macroautophagy/autophagy is an evolutionarily conserved pathway responsible for clearing cytosolic aggregated proteins, damaged organelles or invading microorganisms. Dysfunctional autophagy leads to pathological accumulation of the cargo, which has been linked to a range of human diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases, infectious and autoimmune diseases and various forms of cancer. Cumulative work in animal models, application of genetic tools and pharmacologically active compounds, has suggested the potential therapeutic value of autophagy modulation in disease, as diverse as Huntington, Salmonella infection, or pancreatic cancer. Autophagy activation versus inhibition strategies are being explored, while the role of autophagy in pathophysiology is being studied in parallel. However, the progress of preclinical and clinical development of autophagy modulators has been greatly hampered by the paucity of selective pharmacological agents and biomarkers to dissect their precise impact on various forms of autophagy and cellular responses. Here, we summarize established and new strategies in autophagy-related drug discovery and indicate a path toward establishing a more efficient discovery of autophagy-selective pharmacological agents. With this knowledge at hand, modern concepts for therapeutic exploitation of autophagy might become more plausible.Abbreviations: ALS: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; AMPK: AMP-activated protein kinase; ATG: autophagy-related gene; AUTAC: autophagy-targeting chimera; CNS: central nervous system; CQ: chloroquine; GABARAP: gamma-aminobutyric acid type A receptor-associated protein; HCQ: hydroxychloroquine; LYTAC: lysosome targeting chimera; MAP1LC3/LC3: microtubule associated protein 1 light chain 3; MTOR: mechanistic target of rapamycin kinase; NDD: neurodegenerative disease; PDAC: pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma; PE: phosphatidylethanolamine; PIK3C3/VPS34: phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase catalytic subunit type 3; PtdIns3K: class III phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase; PtdIns3P: phosphatidylinositol 3-phosphate; PROTAC: proteolysis-targeting chimera; SARS-CoV-2: severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2; SQSTM1/p62: sequestosome 1; ULK1: unc-51 like autophagy activating kinase 1.

Keywords: Autophagy activators; autophagy inhibitors; autophagy modulators; clinical trials; drug discovery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autophagy / physiology
  • COVID-19*
  • Class III Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases*
  • SARS-CoV-2


  • Class III Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases

Grant support

This research was funded by H2020 MarieSkłodowska-Curie Actions (765912 - DRIVE).