Exosome mediated communication within the tumor microenvironment

J Control Release. 2015 Dec 10;219:278-294. doi: 10.1016/j.jconrel.2015.06.029. Epub 2015 Jul 2.


It is clear that exosomes (endosome derived vesicles) serve important roles in cellular communication both locally and distally and that the exosomal process is abnormal in cancer. Cancer cells are not malicious cells; they are cells that represent 'survival of the fittest' at its finest. All of the mutations, abnormalities, and phenomenal adaptations to a hostile microenvironment, such as hypoxia and nutrient depletion, represent the astute ability of cancer cells to adapt to their environment and to intracellular changes to achieve a single goal - survival. The aberrant exosomal process in cancer represents yet another adaptation that promotes survival of cancer. Cancer cells can secrete more exosomes than healthy cells, but more importantly, the content of cancer cells is distinct. An illustrative distinction is that exosomes derived from cancer cells contain more microRNA than healthy cells and unlike exosomes released from healthy cells, this microRNA can be associated with the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC) which is required for processing mature and biologically active microRNA. Cancer derived exosomes have the ability to transfer metastatic potential to a recipient cell and cancer exosomes function in the physical process of invasion. In this review we conceptualize the aberrant exosomal process (formation, content selection, loading, trafficking, and release) in cancer as being partially attributed to cancer specific differences in the endocytotic process of receptor recycling/degradation and plasma membrane remodeling and the function of the endosome as a signaling entity. We discuss this concept and, to advance comprehension of exosomal function in cancer as mediators of communication, we detail and discuss exosome biology, formation, and communication in health and cancer; exosomal content in cancer; exosomal biomarkers in cancer; exosome mediated communication in cancer metastasis, drug resistance, and interfacing with the immune system; and discuss the therapeutic manipulation of exosomal content for cancer treatment including current clinical trials of exosomal therapeutics. Often referred to as cellular nanoparticles, understanding exosomes, and how cancer cells use these cellular nanoparticles in communication is at the cutting edge frontier of advancing cancer biology.

Keywords: Cancer; Exosomes; Metastasis; MicroRNA; Signaling endosome.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / administration & dosage
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Cell Communication
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Exosomes* / drug effects
  • Exosomes* / metabolism
  • Exosomes* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Tumor Microenvironment*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Biomarkers, Tumor