Plasma exosome microRNAs are indicative of breast cancer

microRNAs are promising candidate breast cancer biomarkers due to their cancer-specific expression profiles. However, efforts to develop circulating breast cancer biomarkers are challenged by the heterogeneity of microRNAs in the blood. To overcome this challenge, researchers from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center aimed to develop a molecular profile of microRNAs specifically secreted from breast cancer cells. Their first step towards this direction relates to capturing and analyzing the contents of exosomes, which are small secretory vesicles that selectively encapsulate microRNAs indicative of their cell of origin.

Exosomes were collected from the conditioned media of human breast cancer cell lines, mouse plasma of patient-derived orthotopic xenograft models (PDX), and human plasma samples. Exosomes were verified by electron microscopy, nanoparticle tracking analysis, and western blot. Cellular and exosome microRNAs from breast cancer cell lines were profiled by next-generation small RNA sequencing. Plasma exosome microRNA expression was analyzed by qRT-PCR analysis.

Small RNA sequencing and qRT-PCR analysis showed that several microRNAs are selectively encapsulated or highly enriched in breast cancer exosomes. Importantly, the selectively enriched exosome microRNA, human miR-1246, was detected at significantly higher levels in exosomes isolated from PDX mouse plasma, indicating that tumor exosome microRNAs are released into the circulation and can serve as plasma biomarkers for breast cancer. This observation was extended to human plasma samples where miR-1246 and miR-21 were detected at significantly higher levels in the plasma exosomes of 16 patients with breast cancer as compared to the plasma exosomes of healthy control subjects. Receiver operating characteristic curve analysis indicated that the combination of plasma exosome miR-1246 and miR-21 is a better indicator of breast cancer than their individual levels.

qRT-PCR analysis of exosome microRNA expression in normal plasma
and plasma from patients with breast cancer


a Human plasma exosomes were visualized by electron microscopy (×30,000). b Candidate microRNA expression was measured in normal plasma (n = 16) and plasma from patients with breast cancer (n = 16) by qRT-PCR. Student’s t test, *p < 0.05

These results demonstrate that certain microRNA species, such as miR-21 and miR-1246, are selectively enriched in human breast cancer exosomes and significantly elevated in the plasma of patients with breast cancer. These findings indicate a potential new strategy to selectively analyze plasma breast cancer microRNAs indicative of the presence of breast cancer.

Hannafon BN, Trigoso YD, Calloway CL, Zhao YD, Lum DH, Welm AL, Zhao ZJ, Blick KE, Dooley WC, Ding WQ. (2016) Plasma exosome microRNAs are indicative of breast cancer. Breast Cancer Res 18(1):90. [article]

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