Objective: Exosomes are membrane vesicles of endosomal origin that are distinct from apoptotic bodies and are thought to represent an acellular mechanism for antigen transfer to classic antigen-presenting cells, as well as for direct antigen presentation with the capacity to induce immune response or tolerance. Nevertheless, it is not known whether exosomes are involved in the induction or regulation of immune responses against intracellular autoantigens that characterize autoimmune diseases. Exosomes have been shown to be secreted by several types of cells, whereas studies of non-neoplastic epithelial cells are lacking. This study was undertaken to investigate the capacity of non-neoplastic salivary gland epithelial cells (SGECs) to release exosomes, and to determine whether epithelial exosomes contain RNPs, which are major autoantigens in systemic rheumatic diseases.
Methods: Exosomes were isolated by ultracentrifugation from culture supernatants of 26 non-neoplastic SGEC lines established from patients with various rheumatic disorders. They were analyzed by electron microscopy, immunoblotting, or immunoprecipitation.
Results: All SGEC lines were found to release comparable and significant amounts of exosomes. Similar to other cell systems, exosome secretion was constitutive and was unrelated to activation or apoptotic processes. SGEC-derived exosomes were found to contain the autoantigenic Ro/SSA, La/SSB, and Sm RNPs, as well as epithelial-specific cytokeratins.
Conclusion: SGECs constitutively secrete exosomes that contain the major autoantigens Ro/SSA, La/SSB, and Sm. This mechanism may represent a pathway whereby intracellular autoantigens are presented to the immune system with an immunogenic or tolerogenic outcome.