Medical research into extracellular vesicles (EVs) and exosomes has been a rapidly evolving area of multidisciplinary exploration. Once dismissed as cellular trash, these nanometer-scale particles have increasingly become a hot topic in everything from biological cancer therapy and targeted drug investigation to early disease detection.
What are they? Imagine tiny, information-laden bubbles naturally secreted by cells. They are packed with bioactive proteins, lipids, and genetic material. Because they can carry and deliver a remarkable range of miniscule cargo, they play an essential role as intercellular messengers in both physiology and pathology.
Not only do they hold promise as biomarkers – levels of proteins or other substances that can signify disease – but they can also carry RNA and other active substances between cells, giving them advantages for drug delivery. They play roles in maintaining tissue homeostasis and regulating metabolism and immune responses. And, strikingly, some EVs display the ability to cross the blood–brain barrier, meaning they can travel into the brain when in the blood stream.
“In recent years, our broad research community – made up of the and affiliated institutes and hospitals including and – has emerged as a true innovator in EV/exosomes research, making new discoveries with potentially broad impact. Multiple researchers are doing globally competitive work that is enabling scientists to better understand the potential of these ultra-tiny structures,” says Vice-Dean for Research and a full professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.
To name just a few teams that have earned widespread attention: leading efforts to unveil EV-mediated RNA communication, efforts to utilize stem cells and EVs as a therapy for lung injury, and the work of to use EVs and a novel viral technology to advance immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment.
While there’s no shortage of groups across the globe that are investigating EVs and exosomes, members of our thriving collaborative ecosystem are approaching problems from unique angles and developing world-first findings.
“We’re solving problems that others didn’t manage to solve. For example, figuring out how EVs can work as effective delivery vehicles,” says Dr. Gibbings, whose uOttawa lab discovered a mechanism that traffics RNA and microRNA complexes into exosomes and, with a drug company, turned their discovery into a diagnostic test that’s now used in the clinic.
Ultimately, Dr. Gibbings’ long-term goal is to understand how exosomes package and traffic RNA throughout the body and apply this to revolutionize drug delivery by using exosomes to deliver large drugs, including doubled-stranded RNA known as “small interfering RNA” (siRNA).
, whose was the first to use flow cytometry to assess urinary extracellular vesicles and the first to show that increases in levels of these vesicles in urine may be an early sign of diabetic kidney disease, says our research community is increasingly prominent in this international research space.
Investigators’ EVs and exosomes research is massively aided by the , which is internationally recognized for its excellence in small particle (EVs and virus) analysis. The considerable expertise of has given our research community a big leg-up with advanced flow cytometry.
Dr. Tang says the core facility utilizes a method of quantitative flow cytometry that involves optimization and calibration of instruments. Two cutting-edge instruments in the core’s fleet – the Cytek Aurora ESP and CytoFLEX S flow cytometers – have a lower limit of about 100nm to help detect ultra-tiny biological particles such as EVs and viruses.
“We contribute our expertise to help scientists better utilize the scientific instruments so that they can focus on understanding the biology,” Dr. Tang says.
In Dr. Burger’s view: “To put it simply, the fact that I conduct my EV analysis through the uOttawa flow cytometry core gives me instant credibility amongst the international community.”
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