The multifaceted exosome: biogenesis, role in normal and aberrant cellular function, and frontiers for pharmacological and biomarker opportunities

Biochem Pharmacol. 2012 Jun 1;83(11):1484-94. doi: 10.1016/j.bcp.2011.12.037. Epub 2011 Dec 31.


Exosomes are bioactive vesicles derived from the cell's endosomal membrane system and secreted into surrounding body fluids. Exosomes contain cell and cell-state specific cargos of protein, mRNA and miRNA. Exosome formation, cargo content, and delivery to surrounding cells is of immense biological interest considering the role that exosomes are believed to play in various pathological conditions. They aid antigen presentation by immune cells and can exhibit either anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory properties depending on the parent antigen-presenting cell's conditioning. Viruses can hijack a host cell's exosomal machinery to evade host defense systems aiding in the trans-infection of viruses. Tumor derived exosomes may help establish an oncogenic niche systemically via delivery of protein, mRNA, and miRNA that can aid angiogenesis, cell proliferation, and cell survival. Exosomes have also been implicated in the spread of neurodegenerative diseases. Studies have shown that exosomes are selectively taken up by cells distal from their release. They can reprogram the recipient cells due to their active molecular cargo. Cell-lineage and state-specific exosomes imply that they may therefore harbor body fluid-based biomarkers of unparalleled accuracy, particularly for tissues that are difficult or impossible to access. Exosome-specific membrane proteins provide markers enabling exosome identity and selection, while cell type and cell condition-specific protein, mRNA and miRNA cargo provide a rich potential source of biomarkers. This review serves to provide an overview of the current state of the science in the burgeoning field of exosome biology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers
  • Exosomes / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Membrane Proteins / genetics
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism


  • Biomarkers
  • Membrane Proteins