It’s being hailed as the next generation of stem-cell therapy, and a Schulich School of Engineering PhD student is making it a key part of her research.
Sara Hassanpour Tamrin says exosomes are tiny parcels produced by cells that contain a cargo of biologically active materials.
“They travel around in the fluids of the body, such as blood or saliva, until they reach a target cell and deliver their cargo,” she says. “Essentially, exosomes allow cells to communicate with each other, just like a natural postal system in your body.”
Tamrin says working with and understanding these tiny particles, which have an average size of 100 nanometres in diameter, making them approximately 500 times smaller than a typical pollen grain, might be the key to unlocking many health and aesthetic issues.
More than meets the eye
Originally thought to be a waste material of cells, it’s only been a few years since exosomes were first identified as messengers.
“What is beautiful and mysterious about exosomes is that they are naturally occurring biological parcels that cells make and send off to different parts of the body to communicate with other cells — like quick mail,” Tamrin says.
I’ve always wondered if we can hijack this system and learn about how exosomes behave and use it to either treat or diagnose diseases.
It is still early in the research and development of exosomes, but they are now being explored as potential biomarkers and for various therapeutic-specific applications. For example, exosomes produced by cancer cells have been found to have special cancer-related signatures, which, if isolated, could provide a new way to diagnose cancers.
Tamrin says there is also mounting evidence to suggest that exosomes can exert desirable biological activities, such as treating neurodegenerative conditions, liver disease and heart failure.
Just the beginning
Tamrin says exosomes are a rich source of biological information, and it’s only a matter of time before we’re able to fully understand what they’re capable of.
“I believe what we have found about the nature of exosomes is the tip of the iceberg in terms of how these tiny particles can be used in diverse clinical applications,” she says.
“It speaks to the fact that migration toward exosome-based approaches in the clinical and therapeutic industry brings enormous possibilities across a whole spectrum of therapeutic and diagnostic areas.”
Tamrin’s lab supervisor, Dr. Arin Sen, BSc’91, MSC’98, PhD’03, says they are working on developing technologies related to isolating the exosomes for further study.
“One day, using exosomes derived from adult stem cells may end up being more important than using the stem cells themselves,” says Sen, who is the head of the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “Working in this area is new and exciting, and speaks to the wide-ranging work we do at Schulich.”
Tamrin says this work is a key step in capturing the full potential of exosomes.
“The big goal I am working toward is developing exosome-based technologies that have an impact on patients’ lives,” she says. “Imagine a low-cost, simple-to-use diagnostic kit that enables people to enjoy in-home medical services for disease-detection using a simple blood or urine test.”
Despite their tiny size, Tamrin and Sen conclude the potential impact of exosomes is expansive.