Epithelial polarity and tight junction formation limit the ability of adenovirus, retrovirus and adeno-associated virus (AAV) to deliver and express virally encoded genes. Using an extended half-life luciferase assay and high-throughput luminometry, we screened 23 000 compounds and natural product extracts as potentiators to overcome this barrier. Seven strong activators were discovered (up to several hundred fold above control) and two of these exhibited spectrum of activity in multiple cell types (HeLa (human cervical carcinoma), cystic fibrosis bronchial epithelial (human bronchial), HT29 (human colonic carcinoma), Calu3 (airway serous glandular)). Enhanced transduction by unrelated gene transfer vectors (adenovirus, lentivirus, AAV, liposomal) was also observed. These results establish a strategy for identifying compounds that improve viral gene transfer to resistant cell types, and provide new tools for examining epithelial defense against viral infection. The compounds should have broad usefulness in experimental therapies for cancer and genetic diseases. © 2006 Nature Publishing Group All rights reserved.