CD63 sorts cholesterol into endosomes for storage and distribution via exosomes

Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are tiny, membrane-bound packages released by cells that play crucial roles in intercellular communication. Among these EVs, exosomes are especially important. They carry various molecules, such as proteins and lipids, from one cell to another, facilitating numerous physiological processes. Understanding how these vesicles work can provide valuable insights into cellular function and disease mechanisms.

What Are Exosomes?

Exosomes are a type of extracellular vesicle formed inside cells within structures called multivesicular endosomes (MVEs). These MVEs contain intraluminal vesicles (ILVs), which are essentially small vesicles inside larger ones. When MVEs merge with the cell membrane, they release ILVs into the extracellular space as exosomes. These exosomes then travel to recipient cells, delivering their molecular cargo.

The Role of Tetraspanin CD63

One of the key proteins involved in the formation and function of these vesicles is tetraspanin CD63. This protein is found on the surface of ILVs and plays a critical role in sorting lipids, particularly cholesterol, into these vesicles.

Cholesterol Transport and CD63

Cholesterol is a vital lipid for cell membrane structure and function. A recent study by researchers at the Institut Curie reveals that CD63 helps direct cholesterol into ILVs. Here’s how it works:

  1. Sorting Cholesterol: CD63 acts as a sorting mechanism within the endosomes, directing cholesterol into ILVs. This creates a pool of cholesterol within these vesicles.
  2. Mobilization by NPC1/2 Complex: The NPC1/2 complex, a group of proteins involved in cholesterol transport, mobilizes this cholesterol pool. This means that cholesterol can be efficiently packaged into exosomes.
  3. Export via Exosomes: Once packaged, the exosomes are released from the cell, carrying cholesterol to other cells. This process ensures that cholesterol can be distributed throughout the body.

CD63’s Balancing Act

The absence of CD63 disrupts this process. Without CD63, cells rely on a different method to retrieve cholesterol from endosomes, using actin-dependent vesicular transport. This alternative pathway is less efficient and highlights the essential role of CD63 in managing cholesterol distribution.

CD63’s role underscores a delicate balance between the inward and outward movement of vesicles within cells. On one hand, it helps package cholesterol into ILVs (inward movement), and on the other, it aids in the export of these vesicles as exosomes (outward movement).

Implications of the Study

These findings are significant because they:

  • Highlight CD63 as a Key Player: Establishing CD63 as a crucial component in lipid sorting and cholesterol transport within cells.
  • Reveal a New Cholesterol Transport Mechanism: Showing that ILVs and exosomes serve as alternative routes for cholesterol distribution in the body.
  • Enhance Understanding of Cellular Communication: Providing deeper insights into how cells communicate and manage vital resources like cholesterol.


The study of extracellular vesicles, particularly exosomes, is opening new doors in our understanding of cellular communication and lipid transport. Tetraspanin CD63 has emerged as a vital player in this process, ensuring that cholesterol is effectively sorted and distributed via these tiny vesicles. This research not only advances our knowledge of cellular biology but also has potential implications for understanding and treating diseases related to cholesterol imbalance and cellular communication disorders.

Palmulli R, Couty M, Piontek MC et al. (2024) CD63 sorts cholesterol into endosomes for storage and distribution via exosomes. Nat Cell Biol [Epub ahead of print]. [abstract]

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