The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is involved in Ca2+ signaling and protein folding. ER Ca2+ depletion and accumulation of unfolded proteins activate the molecular chaperone GRP78 (glucose-regulated protein 78) which in turn triggers the ER stress response (ERSR) pathway aimed to restore ER homeostasis. Failure to adapt to stress, however, results in apoptosis. We and others have shown that malignant cells are more susceptible to ERSR-induced apoptosis than their normal counterparts, implicating the ERSR as a potential target for cancer therapeutics. Predicated on these findings, we developed an assay that uses a GRP78 biosensor to identify small molecule activators of ERSR in glioma cells. We performed a quantitative high-throughput screen (qHTS) against a collection of ∼425,000 compounds and a comprehensive panel of orthogonal secondary assays was formulated for stringent compound validation. We identified novel activators of ERSR, including a compound with a 2,9-diazaspiro[5.5]undecane core, which depletes intracellular Ca2+ stores and induces apoptosis-mediated cell death in several cancer cell lines, including patient-derived and 3D cultures of glioma cells. This study demonstrates that our screening platform enables the identification and profiling of ERSR inducers with cytotoxic activity and advocates for characterization of these compound in in vivo models.
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