Background: Metastatic melanoma is an untreatable cancer lacking reliable and non-invasive markers of disease progression. Exosomes are small vesicles secreted by normal as well as tumor cells. Human tumor-derived exosomes are involved in malignant progression and we evaluated the presence of exosomes in plasma of melanoma patients as a potential tool for cancer screening and follow-up.
Methodology/principal findings: We designed an in-house sandwich ELISA (Exotest) to capture and quantify exosomes in plasma based on expression of housekeeping proteins (CD63 and Rab-5b) and a tumor-associated marker (caveolin-1). Western blot and flow cytometry analysis of exosomes were used to confirm the Exotest-based findings. The Exotest allowed sensitive detection and quantification of exosomes purified from human tumor cell culture supernatants and plasma from SCID mice engrafted with human melanoma. Plasma levels of exosomes in melanoma-engrafted SCID mice correlated to tumor size. We evaluated the levels of plasma exosomes expressing CD63 and caveolin-1 in melanoma patients (n = 90) and healthy donors (n = 58). Consistently, plasma exosomes expressing CD63 (504+/-315) or caveolin-1 (619+/-310) were significantly increased in melanoma patients as compared to healthy donors (223+/-125 and 228+/-102, respectively). While the Exotest for CD63+ plasma exosomes had limited sensitivity (43%) the Exotest for detection of caveolin-1+ plasma exosomes showed a higher sensitivity (68%). Moreover, caveolin-1+ plasma exosomes were significantly increased with respect to CD63+ exosomes in the patients group.
Conclusions/significance: We describe a new non-invasive assay allowing detection and quantification of human exosomes in plasma of melanoma patients. Our results suggest that the Exotest for detection of plasma exosomes carrying tumor-associated antigens may represent a novel tool for clinical management of cancer patients.