In the recent past, extracellular vesicles have become recognized as important players in cell biology and biomedicine. Extracellular vesicles, including exosomes, microvesicles and apoptotic bodies, are phospholipid bilayer-enclosed structures found to be secreted by most if not all cells. Extracellular vesicle secretion represents a universal and highly conserved active cellular function. Importantly, increasing evidence supports that extracellular vesicles may serve as biomarkers and therapeutic targets or tools in human diseases. Cardiovascular disease undoubtedly represents one of the most intensely studied and rapidly growing areas of the extracellular vesicle field. However, in different studies related to cardiovascular disease, extracellular vesicles have been shown to exert diverse and sometimes discordant biological effects. Therefore, it might seem a puzzle whether these vesicles are in fact beneficial or detrimental to cardiovascular health. In this review we provide a general introduction to extracellular vesicles and an overview of their biological roles in cardiovascular diseases. Furthermore, we aim to untangle the various reasons for the observed discrepancy in biological effects of extracellular vesicles in cardiovascular diseases. To this end, we provide several examples that demonstrate that the observed functional diversity is in fact due to inherent differences among various types of extracellular vesicles.
© 2016 The Authors. The Journal of Physiology © 2016 The Physiological Society.