Exosomes: proteomic insights and diagnostic potential

Expert Rev Proteomics. 2009 Jun;6(3):267-83. doi: 10.1586/epr.09.17.


Exosomes are 40-100-nm diameter membrane vesicles of endocytic origin that are released by most cell types upon fusion of multivesicular bodies with the plasma membrane, presumably as a vehicle for cell-free intercellular communication. While early studies focused on their secretion from diverse cell types in vitro, exosomes have now been identified in body fluids such as urine, amniotic fluid, malignant ascites, bronchoalveolar lavage fluid, synovial fluid, breast milk, saliva and blood. Exosomes have pleiotropic biological functions, including immune response, antigen presentation, intracellular communication and the transfer of RNA and proteins. While they have also been implicated in the transport and propagation of infectious cargo, such as prions, and retroviruses, including HIV, suggesting a role in pathological situations, recent studies suggest that the presence of such infectious cargo may be artefacts of exosome-purification strategies. Improvements in mass spectrometry-based proteomic tools, both hardware and software, coupled with improved purification schemes for exosomes, has allowed more in-depth proteome analyses, contributing immensely to our understanding of the molecular composition of exosomes. Proteomic cataloguing of exosomes from diverse cell types has revealed a common set of membrane and cytosolic proteins, suggesting the evolutionary importance of these membrane particles. Additionally, exosomes express an array of proteins that reflect the originating host cell. Recent findings that exosomes contain inactive forms of both mRNA and microRNA that can be transferred to another cell and be functional in that new environment, have initiated many microRNA profiling studies of exosomes circulating in blood. These studies highlight the potential of exosomal microRNA profiles for use as diagnostic biomarkers of disease through a noninvasive blood test. The exacerbated release of exosomes in tumor cells, as evidenced by their increased levels in blood during the late stage of a disease and their overexpression of certain tumor cell biomarkers, suggests an important role of exosomes in diagnosis and biomarker studies. The aim of this article is to provide a brief overview of exosomes, including methods used to isolate and characterize exosomes. New advances in proteomic methods, and both mass spectrometry hardware and informatics tools will be covered briefly.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Body Fluids / metabolism
  • Exosomes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • MicroRNAs / metabolism
  • Organ Specificity
  • Proteomics*


  • Biomarkers
  • MicroRNAs