The Pathogen Box

Catalysing neglected disease drug discovery

Development of NanoLuc-PEST expressing Leishmania mexicana as a new drug discovery tool for axenic- and intramacrophage-based assays

12 July 2018

Berry SL, Hameed H, Thomason A, Maciej-Hulme ML, Saif Abou-Akkada S, Horrocks P, Price HP

PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases

doi: 10.1371/journal.pntd.0006639


The protozoan parasite Leishmania causes leishmaniasis; a spectrum of diseases of which there are an estimated 1 million new cases each year. Current treatments are toxic, expensive, difficult to administer, and resistance to them is emerging. New therapeutics are urgently needed, however, screening the infective amastigote form of the parasite is challenging. Only certain species can be differentiated into axenic amastigotes, and compound activity against these does not always correlate with efficacy against the parasite in its intracellular niche. Methods used to assess compound efficacy on intracellular amastigotes often rely on microscopy-based assays. These are laborious, require specialist equipment and can only determine parasite burden, not parasite viability.

We have addressed this clear need in the anti-leishmanial drug discovery process by producing a transgenic L. mexicana cell line that expresses the luciferase NanoLuc-PEST. We tested the sensitivity and versatility of this transgenic strain, in comparison with strains expressing NanoLuc and the red-shifted firefly luciferase. We then compared the NanoLuc-PEST luciferase to the current methods in both axenic and intramacrophage amastigotes following treatment with a supralethal dose of Amphotericin B. NanoLuc-PEST was a more dynamic indicator of cell viability due to its high turnover rate and high signal:background ratio.

This, coupled with its sensitivity in the intramacrophage assay, led us to validate the NanoLuc-PEST expressing cell line using the MMV Pathogen Box in a two-step process: i) identify hits against axenic amastigotes, ii) screen these hits using our bioluminescence-based intramacrophage assay. The data obtained from this highlights the potential of compounds active against M. tuberculosis to be re-purposed for use against Leishmania. Our transgenic L. mexicana cell line is therefore a highly sensitive and dynamic system suitable for Leishmania drug discovery in axenic and intramacrophage amastigote models.

Read the full article on PLOS' website.