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Diabetologia. 2019 Oct;62(10):1901-1914. doi: 10.1007/s00125-019-4950-x. Epub 2019 Aug 1.

Differential expression and release of exosomal miRNAs by human islets under inflammatory and hypoxic stress.

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Division of Transplantation, Department of Surgery, Virginia Commonwealth University, Medical Center, Richmond, VA, USA.
Islet Cell Laboratory, Baylor Scott and White Research Institute, 3434 Live Oak Street, Dallas, TX, 75204, USA.
Islet Cell Laboratory, Baylor Scott and White Research Institute, 3434 Live Oak Street, Dallas, TX, 75204, USA.
Islet Cell Laboratory, Baylor Simmons Transplant Institute, 3410 Worth Street, Suite 950, Dallas, TX, 75246, USA.



Pancreatic islets produce non-coding microRNAs (miRNAs) that regulate islet cell function and survival. Our earlier investigations revealed that human islets undergo significant damage due to various types of stresses following transplantation and release miRNAs. Here, we sought to identify and validate exosomal miRNAs (exo-miRNAs) produced by human islets under conditions of cellular stress, preceding loss of cell function and death. We also aimed to identify islet stress signalling pathways targeted by exo-miRNAs to elucidate potential regulatory roles in islet cell stress.


Human islets were subjected to proinflammatory cytokine and hypoxic cell stress and miRNA from exosomes was isolated for RNA sequencing and analysis. Stress-induced exo-miRNAs were evaluated for kinetics of expression and release by intact islets for up to 48 h exposure to cytokines and hypoxia. A subset of stress-induced exo-miRNAs were assessed for recovery and detection as biomarkers of islet cell stress in a diabetic nude mouse xenotransplant model and in patients undergoing total pancreatectomy with islet auto-transplantation (TPIAT). Genes and signalling pathways targeted by stress-induced exo-miRNAs were identified by Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes (KEGG) analysis and direct interactions of miRNAs with downstream signalling targets were validated in human islet cells using the miRNA Tests for Read Analysis and Prediction (MirTrap) system.


Global exo-miRNA sequencing revealed that 879 miRNA species were released from human islets and 190 islet exo-miRNAs were differentially expressed in response to proinflammatory cytokines, hypoxia or both. Release of exo-miRNAs hsa-miR-29b-3p and hsa-miR-216a-5p was detected within 6 h of exposure to cytokines and hypoxia. The remaining subset of stress-induced exo-miRNAs, including hsa-miR-148a-3p and islet cell damage marker hsa-miR-375, showed delayed release at 24-48 h, correlating with apoptosis and cell death. Stress and damage exo-miRNAs were significantly elevated in the circulation in human-to-mouse xenotransplant models and in human transplant recipients. Elevated blood exo-miRNAs negatively correlated with post-transplant islet function based on comparisons of stress and damage exo-miRNA indices with Secretory Unit of Islet Transplant Objects (SUITO) indices. KEGG analysis and further validation of exo-miRNA targets by MirTrap analysis revealed significant enrichment of islet mRNAs involved in phosphoinositide 3-kinase/Akt and mitogen-activated protein kinase signalling pathways.


The study identifies exo-miRNAs differentially expressed and released by islets in response to damage and stress. These exo-miRNAs could serve as potential biomarkers for assessing islet damage and predicting outcomes in islet transplantation. Notably, exo-miRNAs 29b-3p and 216a-5p could be detected in islets prior to damage-released miRNAs and indicators of cellular apoptosis and death. Thus, these stress-induced exo-miRNAs may have potential diagnostic value for detecting early islet stress prior to progressive loss of islet cell mass and function. Further investigations are warranted to investigate the utility of these exo-miRNAs as early indicators of islet cell stress during prediabetic conditions.


Cellular stress; Exosomal miRNA; Islet cell damage; Islet transplantation; PI3K–Akt signalling pathway


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