Viable tumor cells actively release vesicles into the peripheral circulation and other biologic fluids, which exhibit proteins and RNAs characteristic of that cell. Researchers from Exosome Sciences, Inc demonstrated the presence of these extracellular vesicles of tumor origin within the peripheral circulation of cancer patients and proposed their utility for diagnosing the presence of tumors and monitoring their response to therapy in the 1970’s. However, it has only been in the past 10 years that these vesicles have garnered interest based on the recognition that they serve as essential vehicles for intercellular communication, are key determinants of the immunosuppressive microenvironment observed in cancer and provide stability to tumor-derived components that can serve as diagnostic biomarkers. To date, the clinical utility of extracellular vesicles has been hampered by issues with nomenclature and methods of isolation. The term “exosomes” was introduced in 1981 to denote any nanometer-sized vesicles released outside the cell and to differentiate them from intracellular vesicles. Based on this original definition, the authors use “exosomes” as synonymous with “extracellular vesicles.” While the researchers original studies used ultracentrifugation to isolate these vesicles, they immediately became aware of the significant impact of the isolation method on the number, type, content and integrity of the vesicles isolated.
In this review, the authors discuss and compare the most commonly utilized methods for purifying exosomes for post-isolation analyses. The exosomes derived from these approaches have been assessed for quantity and quality of specific RNA populations and specific marker proteins. These results suggest that, while each method purifies exosomal material, there are pros and cons of each and there are critical issues linked with centrifugation-based methods, including co-isolation of non-exosomal materials, damage to the vesicle’s membrane structure and non-standardized parameters leading to qualitative and quantitative variability. The down-stream analyses of these resulting varying exosomes can yield misleading results and conclusions.