Unlocking the
Mysteries of
Extracellular RNA

Once thought to exist only inside cells, RNA is
known to travel outside of cells and play a role in newly
discovered mechanisms of cell-to-cell communication.

Recent research from members of the ExRNA Communication Consortium (ERCC) suggests that extracellular RNAs (exRNAs) circulating in plasma play an active role in insulin resistance (IR). Insulin resistance is an incurable but manageable syndrome where the body stops reacting efficiently to the insulin hormone, which stimulates the uptake of glucose in the blood into cells and inhibits the body from using fat for energy, resulting in high blood sugar levels. The study, by Shav et al., points to certain exRNAs, particularly miR-122 and miR-192, as indicators and active players in IR regardless of the age, sex, or BMI of a person, which suggests that they may serve as more than metabolic markers and that they perhaps have functional, trans-organ roles in mediating IR.

Previous research has demonstrated that exRNAs have different functions in pathways relating to metabolic syndrome, which is a series of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. For example, there is measurable miRNA dysregulation in obesity and in the progression of cardiometabolic disease. Other miRNAs are involved in brown/white fat specification, adipose tissue inflammation (Karbiener and Scheideler, 2014), and hepatic steatosis (fatty liver disease, Becker et al., 2015). Although these studies have identified specific exRNAs and miRNA networks that also have roles in IR, they have had either small sample sizes and lack validation in large populations or have been carried out in non-human models. In order to validate these data, the authors carried out a large-scale human translational study in which they analyzed detailed obesity-related phenotypic data from over 2,500 participants (most of whom were non-diabetic) from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), an unrelated cardiovascular disease study (Feinleib et al., 1975).

To begin, the investigators analyzed blood samples from 2,317 non-diabetic study participants and quantified the plasma extracellular circulating exRNAs. They looked at RNAs [including piwi-interacting RNA (piRNA) and small nucleolar RNA (snoRNA)] expressed above a threshold level and excluded RNAs that were not found in at least 100 participants. From the resulting panel of 391 exRNAs, the investigators identified 16 microRNAs (miRNA), 1 piRNA, and 1 snoRNA that were associated with insulin after controlling for age, sex, and BMI. Of note, the abundance of miR-122 was shown to increase in a stepwise fashion as levels of insulin increased across the population. Higher levels of both miR-122 and miR-192 in the plasma were also consistently associated with a series of metabolic phenotypes, such as greater BMI and waist circumference, visceral fat quantity and quality, and liver attenuation. On the other hand, neither miRNA was associated with subcutaneous fat. These results were consistent whether the analysis included only the non-diabetic participants or the entire FHS population.

miRNAs function to regulate gene expression, so the authors conducted a pathway analysis to determine the targets of the 16 identified miRNAs. Almost unsurprisingly, all 16 miRNAs target insulin signaling pathways such that there is ample crosstalk and targeting of multiple IR-related genes by multiple miRNAs. This analysis validated findings from previous studies that implicated several miRNA target genes in the pathogenesis of IR, notably protein tyrosine phosphatase, nonreceptor type 1 (PTP1B) (Stull et al., 2012), mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) (Wang, Goalstone & Draznin, 2004), and 5′ adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK) (Ruderman et al., 2013).

For the second part of the study, the investigators determined whether the miR-122 and miR-192 associations to age, sex, and BMI held true in a separate study population, a cohort of 90 overweight or obese young adults involved in the POOL study. Analyses of the youths’ plasma samples indicated that miR-122 (but not miR-192) was associated with greater IR after adjusting for age, sex, and BMI, and that this association remained even after the miRNA was analyzed independently of age, sex, BMI, or metabolite profile.

This study provides additional evidence and translational support for the role of exRNAs in IR. The findings indicate not only an association of exRNAs with insulin levels, but that the exRNAs may be playing an active role in the development or sustainment of IR. It is therefore critical to conduct further mechanistic investigations into the role of exRNAs in the metabolic architecture of IR.

Dr. Alissa Weaver, Vanderbilt University professor and Extracellular RNA Communication consortium (ERCC) member, will be inducted as an AAAS Fellow this Saturday, February 18, 2016. Dr. Weaver joins Dr. James Patton, also of Vanderbilt, and Dr. David Wong of UCLA as consortium members who are also current AAAS Fellows. This honor is bestowed upon her for her contributions to the field of cancer biology and studies of extracellular vesicles (EVs) in cell motility and cancer metastasis.

Alissa Weaver

Dr. Weaver’s academic career began at Stanford University where she double majored in Biology and Political Science. Always aspiring to be a physician, she then attended medical school at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. However, along the way, she realized that she missed the academics of a PhD. “When I was in medical school, I realized that I really missed thinking about scientific discovery and was not being taught to do research,” she explained. “I really wanted to have the formal training of getting a PhD so I applied for the program from medical school.” After completing her MD/PhD at UVA, she traveled to Washington University, Saint Louis for 5 years where she did a Laboratory Medicine residency and a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology with Dr. John Cooper.

Finally in 2003, she accepted a faculty position at Vanderbilt University where she now remains as a full time researcher. Her lab focuses on all aspects of extracellular vesicles. The interest originally stemmed from her investigations of cell invasion, migration and cancer metastasis. The lab’s focus shifted as they learned that many of the secreted molecules that facilitated invasion were transported by EVs.

Part of the invasive nature of cancer cells in metastasis involves structures called invadopodia, actin-based protrusions of the plasma membrane that facilitate degradation of the extracellular matrix. For cells to invade, they secrete matrix-degrading proteinases. Work in Weaver’s lab demonstrated that not only were these proteinases carried by EVs but that hot spots for their secretion actually aligned with invadopodia.

Specifically, Weaver’s lab established that invadopodia are important sites for the docking and secretion of exosomes. Exosomes are extracellular vesicles secreted from many different cell types. They originate from multivesicular bodies (MVB), which are mature endosomes that contain many smaller vesicles. Secretion of exosomes occurs when these MVBs fuse with the cell membrane, releasing the molecules contained inside. Though normal cells may use environmental cues to regulate exosome secretion, cancerous cells constitutively turn it on.

Exosome cargoes mediate invadopodia biogenesis, stability, and activity

Exosome cargoes mediate invadopodia biogenesis, stability, and activity.
Source: Hoshino, et al. Cell Rep 2013

“One of the big questions we are working on is the cell biological aspects of these vesicles,” Weaver explained. “How they are made, how cargo gets sorted there, and what does that mean for their biological function after they are secreted? So that is where our work with the ERCC comes in.”

She hopes that working with the scientists of the consortium, they can understand how RNA and RNA binding proteins are trafficked into vesicles. Last year, in a paper published in Cell Reports, her group demonstrated one possible mechanism for the sorting of microRNAs into EVs. They demonstrated that Argonaute 2 (Ago2), part of the RISC machinery that binds to miRNAs, is transported in microvesicles and exosomes. Organization of Ago2 into exosomes is regulated by KRAS-MEK signaling. Dr. Weaver highlighted the study in a blog here mid-last year.

Despite these initial findings, Dr. Weaver admits it is difficult to determine how important extracellular RNA and miRNAs are in regulating cancer metastasis. “I honestly don’t think we know yet, and I think that the field is just now really trying to figure out what are the cargo components that are driving all of these phenotypes we have been trying to characterize so well.” She elaborated, “I think for both the protein and the RNA, the next big step for the field is trying to pin individual EV functions back to specific cargo molecules.”

Asked to reflect on her AAAS fellowship, Dr. Weaver turned the focus on her colleagues in the consortium. “I continue to be very impressed by the quality of investigators and the research being done by the ERCC. I mean really top people who are driving forward what I think is a tough problem.” She and fellow AAAS fellows Dr. Patton and Dr. Wong are, as Dr. Weaver pointed out, “just a small snapshot of fabulous investigators that are part of the consortium.”

The microRNA miR-155 plays a significant role in physiological and pathological processes in humans by blocking the functions of functionally important messenger RNAs of protein coding genes. We found that miR-155 was present in higher levels in cancers resistant to chemotherapy. By studying the association of miR-155 and tumor suppressor TP53 with cancer survival in 956 patients with lung cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and acute lymphoblastic leukemia, we demonstrated that miR-155 induces resistance to multiple chemotherapeutic agents in vitro, and that blocking or down-regulating miR-155 successfully resensitizes tumors to chemotherapy in vivo. We found that high levels of miR-155 and low levels of TP53 characterize the tumors from lung cancer patients with shorter survival time. Our findings support the existence of a miR-155/TP53 feedback loop involved in resistance to chemotherapy. To target this feedback loop and effectively alter resistance to therapy, we have developed a therapeutic nanoformulation of anti-miR-155 in a lipid nanoparticle (DOPC) and have shown it to be non-toxic in vivo for further pre-clinical work.

We thank our co-authors for their work and discussions that led to this blog.

miR-155 TP53 and resistance to chemotherapy