MicroRNA 21 Elicits a Pro-inflammatory Response in Macrophages, with Exosomes Functioning as Delivery Vehicles

Inflammation. 2021 Aug;44(4):1274-1287. doi: 10.1007/s10753-021-01415-0. Epub 2021 Jan 26.


MicroRNAs can regulate inflammatory responses by modulating macrophage polarization. Although microRNA miR-21 is linked to crucial processes involved in inflammatory responses, its precise role in macrophage polarization is controversial. In this study, we investigated the functional relevance of endogenous miRNA-21 and the role of exosomes. RAW 264.7 macrophages were transfected with miR-21 plasmid, and the inflammatory response was evaluated by flow cytometry, phagocytosis, and real-time PCR analysis of inflammatory cytokines. To understand the signaling pathways' role, the cells were treated with inhibitors specific for PI3K or NFĸB. Exosomes from transfected cells were used to study the paracrine action of miR-21 on naive macrophages. Overexpression of miR-21 resulted in significant upregulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines, pushing the cells towards a pro-inflammatory phenotype, with partial involvement of PI3K and NFĸB signal pathways. The cells also secreted miR-21 rich exosomes, which, on delivery to naive macrophages, caused them to exhibit pro-inflammatory activity. The presence of miR-21 inhibitor quenched the inflammatory response. This study validates the pro-inflammatory property of miR-21 with a tendency to foster an inflammatory milieu. Our findings also reinforce the dual importance of exosomal miR-21 as a biomarker and therapeutic target in inflammatory conditions.

Keywords: NFĸB; exosomal miRNA; exosome; macrophage polarization; microRNA 21, miR-21; pro-inflammation.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Communication / physiology*
  • Cell Polarity / physiology
  • Exosomes / metabolism*
  • Exosomes / pathology
  • Inflammation Mediators / metabolism*
  • Macrophages / metabolism*
  • Macrophages / pathology
  • Mice
  • MicroRNAs / metabolism*
  • Phagocytosis / physiology
  • RAW 264.7 Cells


  • Inflammation Mediators
  • MIRN21 microRNA, mouse
  • MicroRNAs