Circulating exosomes in bodily fluids such as blood are being actively studied as a rich source of chemical biomarkers for cancer diagnosis and monitoring. Although nucleic acid analysis is a primary tool for the discovery of circulating biomarkers in exosomes, metabolomics holds the potential of expanding the chemical diversity of biomarkers that may be easy and rapid to detect. However, only trace amounts of exosomes can be isolated from a small volume of patient blood, and thus a very sensitive technique is required to analyze the metabolome of exosomes.
Researchers from the University of Alberta have developed a workflow that involves multiple cycles of ultracentrifugation for exosome isolation using a starting material of 2 mL of human serum, freeze-thaw-cycles in 50% methanol/water for exosome lysis and metabolite extraction, differential chemical isotope labeling (CIL) of metabolites for enhancing liquid chromatography (LC) separation and improving mass spectrometry (MS) detection, and nanoflow LC-MS (nLC-MS) with captivespray for analysis. As a proof-of-principle, they used dansylation labeling to analyze the amine- and phenol-submetabolomes in two sets of exosome samples isolated from the blood samples of five pancreatic cancer patients before and after chemotherapy treatment. The average number of peak pairs or metabolites detected was 1964 ± 60 per sample for a total of 2446 peak pairs (n = 10) in the first set and 1948 ± 117 per sample for a total of 2511 peak pairs (n = 10) in the second set. There were 101 and 94 metabolites positively identified in the first and second set, respectively, and 1580 and 1590 peak pairs with accurate masses matching those of metabolites in the MyCompoundID metabolome database. Analyzing the mixtures of 12C-labeled individual exosome samples spiked with a 13C-labeled pooled sample which served as an internal standard allowed relative quantification of metabolomic changes of exosomes of blood samples collected before and after treatment.