Cancer Cells
Size really does matter when it comes to the mechanisms that cells use to communicate with each other, according to pioneering new nanobiotechnology research which has important implications for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

An international team of scientists has made major strides in understanding ‘exosomes’ – tiny biological structures (or ‘vesicles’) which are used by cells in the body to transfer information. The researchers believe the findings could be significant for several fields of medical science, from personalising medical treatments to better understanding the growth and spread of cancerous tumours.

Exosomes are packed with proteins and RNA. They can be generated by one cell, taken up by another, and trigger a specific response. To date, scientific research has focused on the content of exosomes, but a new study led by scientists at the University of Lincoln, UK, focused instead on the size of exosomes and how this affects the way they work.

Led by Dr Enrico Ferrari, a specialist in nanobiotechnology, the team discovered that the smaller the exosomes are, the easier it is for target cells to pick them up. This makes communication between cells much faster.

The research examined exosomes taken from a patient with a high-grade glioma (rapidly growing brain tumour). The researchers had previously found that some stem cells within the patient’s brain were producing exosomes that were responsible for supporting cancer cells and making them more aggressive.

Their latest work suggests that the level of aggression in a tumour could be determined by the size of the exosomes produced by the cancerous cells – for example the smaller the exosomes, the faster the cells can communicate and reproduce, and the quicker the cancer develops.

These initial findings could therefore have important implications for the prognosis of different cancers in the future, as doctors may be able to examine the size of the exosomes produced and more accurately predict the course of a patient’s tumour.

The study was carried out by researchers from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, UK; the Department of Medical and Biological Sciences at the University of Udine; and the Department of Neuroscience at Santa Maria della Misericordia University Hospital, both in Italy. The findings are published in the scientific journal, Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine.

The news story is available to read on the University of Lincoln website.