Flood Control: How Milk-Derived Extracellular Vesicles Can Help to Improve the Intestinal Barrier Function and Break the Gut-Joint Axis in Rheumatoid Arthritis

Front Immunol. 2021 Jul 28;12:703277. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2021.703277. eCollection 2021.


Many studies provided compelling evidence that extracellular vesicles (EVs) are involved in the regulation of the immune response, acting as both enhancers and dampeners of the immune system, depending on the source and type of vesicle. Research, including ours, has shown anti-inflammatory effects of milk-derived EVs, using human breast milk as well as bovine colostrum and store-bought pasteurized cow milk, in in vitro systems as well as therapeutically in animal models. Although it is not completely elucidated which proteins and miRNAs within the milk-derived EVs contribute to these immunosuppressive capacities, one proposed mechanism of action of the EVs is via the modulation of the crosstalk between the (intestinal) microbiome and their host health. There is increasing awareness that the gut plays an important role in many inflammatory diseases. Enhanced intestinal leakiness, dysbiosis of the gut microbiome, and bowel inflammation are not only associated with intestinal diseases like colitis and Crohn's disease, but also characteristic for systemic inflammatory diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Strategies to target the gut, and especially its microbiome, are under investigation and hold a promise as a therapeutic intervention for these diseases. The use of milk-derived EVs, either as stand-alone drug or as a drug carrier, is often suggested in recent years. Several research groups have studied the tolerance and safety of using milk-derived EVs in animal models. Due to its composition, milk-derived EVs are highly biocompatible and have limited immunogenicity even cross species. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that milk-derived EVs, when taken up in the gastro-intestinal tract, stay intact after absorption, indicating excellent stability. These characteristics make milk-derived EVs very suitable as drug carriers, but also by themselves, these EVs already have a substantial immunoregulatory function, and even without loading, these vesicles can act as therapeutics. In this review, we will address the immunomodulating capacity of milk-derived EVs and discuss their potential as therapy for RA patients.

Review criteria: The search terms "extracellular vesicles", "exosomes", "microvesicles", "rheumatoid arthritis", "gut-joint axis", "milk", and "experimental arthritis" were used. English-language full text papers (published between 1980 and 2021) were identified from PubMed and Google Scholar databases. The reference list for each paper was further searched to identify additional relevant articles.

Keywords: bovine milk; extracellular vesicles; immunomodulation; intestine; microbiome; rheumatoid arthritis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / immunology*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / therapy
  • Extracellular Vesicles / immunology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunomodulation
  • Intestines / immunology*
  • Joints / immunology
  • Milk, Human / immunology*