Cell-to-cell communication discovery unlocks new potential

Our School’s Dr Enrico Ferrari and an international team of scientists have discovered that ‘size matters’ in cell-to-cell communication. When it comes to the mechanisms that cells use to communicate with each other, cell size really does matter, according to pioneering new nanobiotechnology research which has important implications for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

This research has been to advance the understanding of ‘exosomes’ – tiny biological structures (or ‘vesicles’) which are used by cells in the body to transfer information. The researchers believe the findings could be significant for several fields of medical science, from personalising medical treatments to better understanding the growth and spread of cancerous tumours.

Exosomes are packed with proteins and RNA. They can be generated by one cell, taken up by another, and trigger a specific response. To date, scientific research has focused on the content of exosomes, but a new study led by scientists at the University of Lincoln, UK, focused instead on the size of exosomes and how this affects the way they work.

Dr Ferrari (centre)
Dr Ferrari (centre)

Led by Dr Enrico Ferrari, a specialist in nanobiotechnology, the team discovered that the smaller the exosomes are, the easier it is for target cells to pick them up. This makes communication between cells much faster. The study examined exosomes taken from a patient with a high-grade glioma (rapidly growing brain tumour). The researchers had previously found that some stem cells within the patient’s brain were producing exosomes that were responsible for supporting cancer cells and making them more aggressive.

Their latest work suggests that the level of aggression in a tumour could be determined by the size of the exosomes produced by the cancerous cells – for example the smaller the exosomes, the faster the cells can communicate and reproduce, and the quicker the cancer develops.

These initial findings could therefore have important implications for the prognosis of different cancers in the future, as doctors may be able to examine the size of the exosomes produced and more accurately predict the course of a patient’s tumour. The study was carried out by researchers from our School of Life Sciences, the Department of Medical and Biological Sciences at the University of Udine, and the Department of Neuroscience at Santa Maria della Misericordia University Hospital, both in Italy. The findings are published in the scientific journal, Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine.

“Rather than looking inside the exosome, we decided to take a detailed look at the nature of the vehicle, specifically its size”, explained Dr Ferrari. “If you think of an exosome as a package, regardless of the specific molecules it carries, the nature of the ‘envelope’ is likely to be of great importance to the delivery of the message. The larger the envelope, the more difficult it is to deliver!

“Previous research has examined how size affects the behaviour of artificial nanoparticles in a human body, and this new study found that biological particles like exosomes may act in much the same way – the smaller they are, the ‘louder’ their message is, as it is easier for target cells to take them up and ‘hear’ the message.

“Traditionally it has been difficult to observe this behaviour in exosomes because they are extremely small (well below optical resolution), very elusive, and difficult to isolate. However, our team developed a new set of techniques to overcome all of these factors and answer important questions about size-dependent uptake, which previously have not been addressed.

“The size of different exosomes has been explored in a few other studies, but never in relation to how effectively they can deliver their messages.”

The new research could also have future implications for the delivery of medicine, as exosomes could potentially be used as nanocarriers for specific drugs. The scientists predict that it may be possible to manipulate the size of exosomes used in therapeutics to make them more effective, and to use the personalised exosomes produced in the human body – or particles which mimic the way they behave – to achieve more targeted and efficient drug delivery. This process is called exotherapy.

The team now hopes to pursue further research in this area to more accurately understand the impact of exosome size on the way that cells communicate, and develop ways this knowledge can be used in the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of individual patients. The research paper detailing the team’s findings in full, entitled Size-dependent cellular uptake of exosomes, will feature in the April issue of Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine and is available to read online.

Student wins prestigious place at conference

A Lincoln Life Sciences student was one of only two young scientists to win the prestigious British Society for Nanomedicine competition.

Matthew Hockley submitted an article discussing how a combination of both nanoparticles for drug delivery and self-assembling nanotechnology could be the building blocks for a future ‘robot’ device that would act independently by administering treatments to target specific health problems in the human body.

As a result Matthew, second year Biomedical Science undergraduate at the University of Lincoln, was invited to the recent Nano4Life 2013 conference held in London.

He said: “Nano-devices today are still thought by many as science fiction but advances over the past 20 years have started to become reality. Many developments have been made into nanomedicine for application in the medical arena. There is a lot of research that still requires elaboration until these become commonplace in hospitals but with more funding being dedicated to nanotechnology, advances in nanomedicine are soon going to increase with ever growing applications and will, I believe, replicate the success of biotechnology.”

Matthew met with academics, researchers and clinicians and had the opportunity to network with those working at the vanguard of nanomedicine.

He added: It was an amazing experience where I was able to speak with academics involved specifically in the research area that I am interested in.”

Dr Ciaren Graham, Senior Lecturer in the School of Life Sciences, said: We are absolutely delighted for Matt on winning this prestigious competition. The Nano4life conference gathered leading experts in the field of nanoscience from academia and the pharmaceutical industry to discuss this exciting new area of healthcare. Matt exemplifies the drive and dedication of our student body here at the University of Lincoln.”

The fifth Nano4Life conference explored the merging of nanotechnology and life sciences, providing perspectives from clinicians, industrialists and leading researchers, who work with, develop and endorse nanotechnologies in the healthcare sector.

To read Matthew’s winning entry go to: http://www.britishsocietynanomedicine.org/winners-essay.html