• Science Saturday: Shuttling through extracellular space

Discovery's Edge illustration of molecules being released and shared between cellsComplex medical issues like transplants, kidney disease, and cancer may be helped by knowing more about how cells communicate.

When scientists are lucky, what comes into focus under the microscope also clarifies a new horizon in medicine. One such adventure started with platelet dust. In 1967, the author of an article in the British Journal of Haematology, reported seeing the dust, or micro-sized particles, under his microscope in the part of blood called plasma. Peter Wolf, the author and a physician, determined that the particles helped blood to clot.

Other researchers also were finding these microparticles in bodily fluids. But many thought they were the equivalent of cellular trash bags: a membrane sack filled with junk put out for the body to clean up. But the microparticles were much more than trash. Researchers now think they may provide a path forward in treating complex and tricky diseases that have few other options.

Cells assemble various molecules, wrap them in a protective membrane and release them into the extracellular space. Neighboring cells pick up these extracellular vesicles thereby receiving the molecular “messages.”

In 2013, three researchers won the Nobel Prize for identifying the role this trash-to-treasure plays in cellular communication. By then, the microparticles had been rebranded as “extracellular vesicles,” combining a Latin word for bladder or fluid-filled sac (vesicle) with a description of where it travels (extra, or outside, the cell that created it). Not a name meant for a marquee, perhaps, but certainly better than “dust” and one that speaks
to the deceptively simple nature of this cellular tool.

At Mayo, at least 100 researchers are investigating the role of vesicles in liver and kidney disease; organ transplant; pre-eclampsia; and cancers such as glioblastoma, myeloma and melanoma. Understanding how vesicles are used by cells — or are hijacked by disease — may spark critical advances for patients with rare, complex or chronic conditions. Read the rest of the article on the Center for Regenerative Medicine blog.

Other Mayo Clinic medical research websites:

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