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Pharmacol Rev. 2012 Jul;64(3):676-705. doi: 10.1124/pr.112.005983. Epub 2012 Jun 21.

Classification, functions, and clinical relevance of extracellular vesicles.

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Department of Clinical Chemistry, Academic Medical Centre of the University of Amsterdam, Meibergdreef 9, 1105AZ Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Both eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells release small, phospholipid-enclosed vesicles into their environment. Why do cells release vesicles? Initial studies showed that eukaryotic vesicles are used to remove obsolete cellular molecules. Although this release of vesicles is beneficial to the cell, the vesicles can also be a danger to their environment, for instance in blood, where vesicles can provide a surface supporting coagulation. Evidence is accumulating that vesicles are cargo containers used by eukaryotic cells to exchange biomolecules as transmembrane receptors and genetic information. Because also bacteria communicate to each other via extracellular vesicles, the intercellular communication via extracellular cargo carriers seems to be conserved throughout evolution, and therefore vesicles are likely to be a highly efficient, robust, and economic manner of exchanging information between cells. Furthermore, vesicles protect cells from accumulation of waste or drugs, they contribute to physiology and pathology, and they have a myriad of potential clinical applications, ranging from biomarkers to anticancer therapy. Because vesicles may pass the blood-brain barrier, they can perhaps even be considered naturally occurring liposomes. Unfortunately, pathways of vesicle release and vesicles themselves are also being used by tumors and infectious diseases to facilitate spreading, and to escape from immune surveillance. In this review, the different types, nomenclature, functions, and clinical relevance of vesicles will be discussed.

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