As “natural” antigen carriers in the body, exosomes are potential vaccine vectors. A number of animal studies indicate that antigen-containing exosomes can induce a specific immune response which can protect against tumor progression or various infections. Exosomes that carry the protective antigens can be purified from cells that release them including tumor cells, dendritic cells and macrophages. However, this strategy is restricted to proteins that are naturally targeted to exosomes and is therefore limited in the number of antigens present within exosomes.
Therefore, with the goal of developing an exosome-based vaccine that is more flexible in its antigen composition and has the potential to be scalable, researchers at the University of Notre Dame have developed a new approach where recombinant soluble proteins can be packaged into exosomes and released from a transformed cell line. In this study, they determined that a C-terminal fusion of ubiquitin to EGFP, tumor antigenic protein nHer2 and Mycobacterium tuberculosis proteins Ag85B and ESAT6 served as an efficient delivery sequence into exosomes when expressed in a human embryonic kidney (HEK 293) cell line, a cell line widely used in industrial recombinant protein production. Two stably transgenic HEK293 cell lines were generated using a retroviral vector to express the Ag85B-ESAT6 fusion protein either alone or tagged at the C-terminus with ubiquitin. Both transformants released exosomes containing the fusion proteins. However, the concentration of Ag85B and ESAT6 in exosomes was increased approximately 10 fold when they were coupled to ubiquitin. Moreover, when the exosomes were used for immunization, there was a direct correlation between the amount of fusion protein within the exosomes and the number of Ag85B and ESAT6 specific INFɣ-secreting T lymphocytes in the lung and spleen. This suggests that exosomes containing recombinant antigen can be used to elicit a T cell response. In summary this data indicates that a ubiquitin-based exosomal protein delivery strategy could represent a unique approach to generate antigen-specific exosomes with the potential to be used as novel vaccines.