If you wanted to deliver a message to someone, you may choose to call, text, email, or perhaps send a letter to the recipient. Similarly, the cells in your body use a variety of methods to communicate amongst each other in order to carry out physiologic functions.
Studies of cell-to-cell communication have traditionally focused on chemical substances, hormones, and neurotransmitters as the principal ways in which cells send and receive information. However, new findings within the last five years have pointed to a population of nanoparticles, called exosomes, which have been found to play an important role in biological signaling processes.
Exosomes are tiny bubbles, or vesicles, that are released from practically every cell in the body and contain genetic information specific to that cell. They were previously thought to only be carriers of waste, but research has shown that these tiny spheres contain important information which, when transported to and from different cells, is used to influence many actions, like immune regulation, cell differentiation, and the spread of infections and cancer. Because they are found in many, or even all bodily fluids, scientists also believe that exosomes could become markers for the early diagnosis of many diseases.
“Exosomes are widely explored in different types of cancer and are known to be involved in cancer metastasis. They have also been used for vaccines and as biomarkers, so there has been a lot of study into exosomes in cancer. But there is not that much information available right now about these exosomes and what role they have in type 1 diabetes,” says Marta Garcia-Contreras, a senior research associate at the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI), who is pursuing her international Ph.D. in health science at the Catholic University in Valencia, Spain. She is currently working at the DRI thanks to funding from the Ri.MED Foundation in Palermo, Italy, which helps to promote and support research projects with an emphasis on translating innovative results into clinical practice. DRI Director Camillo Ricordi, M.D., serves as president of Ri.MED and donates his honorarium to the DRI and Foundation to support important projects.
Garcia-Contreras began studying exosomes while working on her master’s thesis in tissue regeneration and regenerative medicine. One of the DRI’s promising young scientists, she works under Dr. Ricordi’s mentorship and is now investigating how exosomes may play a role in establishing immune tolerance and improving islet transplantation outcomes.
“Marta has been an excellent Ph.D. student working on an emerging field that could change regenerative medicine applications and innovative treatments for type 1 diabetes and autoimmune disease conditions. It has been a pleasure to support her efforts and see this student grow scientifically at the DRI. I am confident that she will continue to be a key player in our research efforts and future accomplishments,” said Dr. Ricordi.
Studies have shown that exosomes released from beta cells can carry auto-antigens, the substances which become the target of the immune system attack in those with or at risk for type 1 diabetes. In turn, this “kill” signal is presented to the body’s immune cells, which sets off the cascade of responses that result in the destruction of the beta cells. Garcia-Contreras is trying to determine if there is a specific marker or identifying factor for these beta cell-specific exosomes that may be used in developing new therapies to combat the disease.
“Exosomes are involved in the immune system and can activate autoimmunity. We may be able to use them as therapeutic agents if we can block the secretion of these vesicles, or produce exosomes that can carry beneficial signals,” she says. “Another possibility that we are exploring is to isolate the exosomes, manipulate them to produce a different signal, and then inject them into the body to deliver the right information.”
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Lori Weintraub, APR