Quantum dot labeling and visualization of extracellular vesicles

Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are important mediators of intercellular communication. Their role in disease processes, uncovered mostly over the last two decades, makes them potential biomarkers, leading to a need to fundamentally understand EV biology. Direct visualization of EVs can provide insights into EV behavior, but current labeling techniques are often restricted by false-positive signals and rapid photobleaching.

University of Washington researchers have developed a method of labeling EVs through conjugation with quantum dots (QDs)—high photoluminescent nanosized semiconductors—using click chemistry. They showed that QD-EV conjugation could be tailored by altering QD to EV ratio or by using a catalyst. This conjugation chemistry was stable in a biological environment and upon storage for up to a week. Using size-exclusion chromatography, QD-EV conjugates could be separated from unconjugated QDs, enabling EV-specific signal detection. The researchers demonstrate that these QD-EV conjugates can be live- and fixed-imaged in high resolution on cells and in tissue sheets, and the conjugates have better photostability compared with the commonly used EV dye DiI. They labeled two distinct EV populations: human semen EVs (sEVs) from fresh semen samples donated by healthy volunteers and brain EVs (bEVs) from excised rat brain tissues. They visualized QD-sEVs in epithelial sheets isolated from human vaginal mucosa and time-lapse imaged QD-bEV interactions with microglial BV-2 cells. The development of the QD-EV conjugate will benefit the study of EV localization, movement, and function and accelerate their potential use as biomarkers, therapeutic agents, or drug-delivery vehicles.

Zhang M, Vojtech L, Ye Z, Hladik F, Nance E. (2020) Quantum Dot Labeling and Visualization of Extracellular Vesicles. ACS Appl Nano Mater [online ahead of print]. [abstract]

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