Columns Opinion

Everything everywhere all about Extracellular Vesicles

Swagatama Mukherjee

Swagatama Mukherjee, a research student at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, is studying Extracellular Vesicles (EVs) derived from Glioblastoma (GBM), an incredibly aggressive brain tumour. In this opinion article, Swagatama talks about her research and the untapped potential of EVs, which holds great promise for scientific advancements and understanding various diseases.

EV The Golden Snitch (Illustrated by Swagatama Mukherjee)
EV The Golden Snitch (Illustrated by Swagatama Mukherjee) 

Imagine sending a care package to a friend, filled with snacks, books, and perhaps a handwritten note. Well, our cells do something similar with Extracellular vesicles (EVs). They fill these vesicles with bioactive cargo and send them off to other cells in the body. EVs are tiny messengers in our bodies, delivering crucial information, but without postage stamps. These dynamic vesicles play a vital role as a communication system across all cell types, ensuring that our cells stay connected and function harmoniously.

During cell biology class, we learn about various organelles like mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell; lysosomes, the suicide bags; and ribosomes, also known as protein factories. But amidst all that, one tiny term may have gone unnoticed: extracellular vesicles (EVs). Interestingly, EVs are a treasure trove of science information and offer a realm of thrilling possibilities!

The Golden Snitch’ of Cell Biology

What’s amazing about EVs is that they aren’t limited to just one function or one species. They exist in all three domains of life: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. EV research covers a wide range of origins and organisms, from bacterial EVs to those found in the brain, milk, embryos, algae, and more.

The discovery of EVs happened by chance and lacked a cohesive understanding, leaving plenty of room for further research. However, there’s undeniable evidence that these vesicles are now being extensively used to revisit and solve various biological mysteries. They were once considered biologically inactive waste-disposal systems, and sadly, they were left out of our textbooks for decades. 

But things have changed. With significant advancements in science, EVs, once seen as mere waste sacs, are now recognised as the cellular Morse code. The story of EVs is an exciting one, showing us that there’s still so much to learn and explore in the world of biology.

Excitement and challenges of being an EV researcher

I have always longed for the thrill of discovery, and the opportunity presented itself when I plunged into the fascinating world of EV research. Through my doctoral project, I am delving deep into the intricate world of Extracellular vesicles derived from Glioblastoma (GBM), an incredibly aggressive brain tumor. It’s like stepping into a whole new dimension, offering a fresh perspective and a unique vantage point to confront the formidable challenge of Glioblastoma.

Imagine EVs as a postal system within our cells, carrying packages of information from one cell to another. The content of these vesicles depends on their source. 

Imagine EVs as a postal system within our cells, carrying packages of information from one cell to another. The content of these vesicles depends on their source. In the case of cancer, EVs are hijacked by cancer cells to deliver harmful cargo, like receiving a package marked with an X’. My project aims to decipher the contents packed into EVs by these hijacked cells, in the hopes of finding answers to this puzzle.

Despite my initial excitement for the field, being an EV researcher has come with its challenges. I’ve had to troubleshoot isolation and characterisation techniques and face a certain degree of skepticism towards this emerging field. But, the growing momentum in EV research, particularly its potential to unravel the mysteries of Glioblastoma, has solidified my motivation. Despite the obstacles, EV research is increasingly seen as a biological Cryptex, holding the key to unlocking new understandings in the field.

Love at first ZOOM

When I started my PhD, I was eager to discuss my research with other scientists, but COVID-19 made it difficult. Then, I stumbled upon a networking event called Coffee catch-up” hosted by a group called Student Network on Extracellular Vesicles (SNEV). Even though it was early in the morning, I joined the Zoom call and was able to connect with other young EV researchers from around the world. We discussed everything from troubleshooting protocols to tips and tricks of the field. This experience reminded me of the importance of scientific discourse, collaboration, and community, especially during a time when we were physically isolated from each other. 

As a life science researcher, I wanted to expand my experiences beyond the lab and build a network of like-minded peers. I found this opportunity by working as a core team member for SNEV. This experience opened avenues for me to explore exciting research and engage with future Indian EV researchers.

'Coffee catch-up' hosted by Student Network on Extracellular Vesicles (SNEV) during COVID-19 pandemic. Picture Credits: Swagatama Mukherjee
Coffee catch-up’ hosted by Student Network on Extracellular Vesicles (SNEV) during COVID-19 pandemic. Picture Credits: Swagatama Mukherjee

Support from the community

Research isn’t something that can be managed alone; it requires a community of support. The field of extracellular vesicles (EVs) lacked consensus and support until the International Society of Extracellular Vesicles (ISEV) was founded in 2012. ISEV’s mission is to promote, train, and provide collaborative opportunities to the diverse group of researchers studying these diverse vesicles. EV chapters from different countries, such as the German Society of EVs, Austrian Society of EVs, and Italian Society of EVs, exist to cultivate a network of EV scientists. However, this concept has yet to be fully adapted in India.

In India, EVs hold great promise for understanding diseases and solving biological mysteries. They have already helped scientists learn more about stem cells, the relationship between our gut and brain, how plants interact with pathogens, and much more. Even though there are some pockets of EV research happening in India, we haven’t fully tapped into their potential yet. There are two key reasons: firstly, the necessary equipments are not easily accessible, and secondly, researchers face limited opportunities to collaborate and discuss their findings.