Anticytolytic Screen Identifies Inhibitors of Mycobacterial Virulence Protein Secretion
Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) requires protein secretion systems like ESX-1 for intracellular survival and virulence. The major virulence determinant and ESX-1 substrate, EsxA, arrests phagosome maturation and lyses cell membranes, resulting in tissue damage and necrosis that promotes pathogen spread. To identify inhibitors of Mtb protein secretion, we developed a fibroblast survival assay exploiting this phenotype and selected molecules that protect host cells from Mtb-induced lysis without being bactericidal in vitro. Hit compounds blocked EsxA secretion and promoted phagosome maturation in macrophages, thus reducing bacterial loads. Target identification studies led to the discovery of BTP15, a benzothiophene inhibitor of the histidine kinase MprB that indirectly regulates ESX-1, and BBH7, a benzyloxybenzylidene-hydrazine compound. BBH7 affects Mtb metal-ion homeostasis and revealed zinc stress as an activating signal for EsxA secretion. This screening approach extends the target spectrum of small molecule libraries and will help tackle the mounting problem of antibiotic-resistant mycobacteria.