An automated high-throughput cell-based multiplexed flow cytometry assay to identify novel compounds to target Candida albicans virulence-related proteins.
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Although three major classes of systemic antifungal agents are clinically available, each is characterized by important limitations. Thus, there has been considerable ongoing effort to develop novel and repurposed agents for the therapy of invasive fungal infections. In an effort to address these needs, we developed a novel high-throughput, multiplexed screening method that utilizes small molecules to probe candidate drug targets in the opportunistic fungal pathogen Candida albicans. This method is amenable to high-throughput automated screening and is based upon detection of changes in GFP levels of individually tagged target proteins. We first selected four GFP-tagged membrane-bound proteins associated with virulence or antifungal drug resistance in C. albicans. We demonstrated proof-of-principle that modulation of fluorescence intensity can be used to assay the expression of specific GFP-tagged target proteins to inhibitors (and inducers), and this change is measurable within the HyperCyt automated flow cytometry sampling system. Next, we generated a multiplex of differentially color-coded C. albicans strains bearing C-terminal GFP-tags of each gene encoding candidate drug targets incubated in the presence of small molecules from the Prestwick Chemical Library in 384-well microtiter plate format. Following incubation, cells were sampled through the HyperCyt system and modulation of protein levels, as indicated by changes in GFP-levels of each strain, was used to identify compounds of interest. The hit rate for both inducers and inhibitors identified in the primary screen did not exceed 1% of the total number of compounds in the small-molecule library that was probed, as would be expected from a robust target-specific, high-throughput screening campaign. Secondary assays for virulence characteristics based on null mutant strains were then used to further validate specificity. In all, this study presents a method for the identification and verification of new antifungal drugs targeted to fungal virulence proteins using C. albicans as a model fungal pathogen.