A cell-based high throughput screening assay for the discovery of cGAS-STING pathway agonists

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Stimulator of interferon genes (STING) is an endoplasmic reticulum transmembrane protein that serves as a molecular hub for activation of interferon and inflammatory cytokine response by multiple cellular DNA sensors. Not surprisingly, STING has been demonstrated to play an important role in host defense against microorganisms and pharmacologic activation of STING is considered as an attractive strategy to treat viral diseases and boost antitumor immunity. In light of this we established a HepAD38-derived reporter cell line that expresses firefly luciferase in response to the activation of cyclic GMP-AMP synthase (cGAS)-STING pathway for high throughput screening (HTS) of small molecular human STING agonists. This cell-based reporter assay required only 4 h treatment with a reference STING agonist to induce a robust luciferase signal and was demonstrated to have an excellent performance in HTS format. By screening 16,000 compounds, a dispiro diketopiperzine (DSDP) compound was identified to induce cytokine response in a manner dependent on the expression of functional human STING, but not mouse STING. Moreover, we showed that DSDP induced an interferon-dominant cytokine response in human skin fibroblasts and peripheral blood mononuclear cells, which in turn potently suppressed the replication of yellow fever virus, dengue virus and Zika virus. We have thus established a robust cell-based assay system suitable for rapid discovery and mechanistic analyses of cGAS-STING pathway agonists. Identification of DSDP as a human STING agonist enriches the pipelines of STING-targeting drug development for treatment of viral infections and cancers.HighlightsA robust cell-based reporter assay was established for high throughput screening of cGAS-STING pathway agonists.Molecular and cellular tools were developed for target validation and mechanistic analysis of the identified agonists.A dispiro diketopiperzine compound DSDP was identified as human STING agonist from screening of 16,000 compounds.DSDP induced an interferon-dominant cytokine response and suppressed the replication of flaviviruses.

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