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.”

Immunology 2016
Immunology 2016

Extracellular RNA was a hot topic of discussion at Immunology 2016, the annual meeting of the American Association of Immunologists (AAI), held at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, Washington May 13-17th, 2016. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) sponsored a symposium on “Extracellular RNA in the Immune System”, co-chaired by Dr. Kevin Howcroft (Division of Cancer Biology, Cancer Immunology, Hematology, and Etiology Branch, NCI) and K. Mark Ansel (University of California San Francisco – your faithful blogger). Four invited speakers presented and participated in lively discussion with an audience of gathered experts and curious newcomers to the field of extracellular RNA.

Dr. Gyongyi Szabo (University of Massachusetts) opened the symposium with a presentation of her laboratory’s work on extracellular vesicles and miRNAs in innate immune cell communication in the liver. Alcohol exposure induces liver inflammation, marked by release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and activation of myeloid cells, including Kupffer cells, the resident macrophages of the liver. In a mouse model, alcohol consumption increased expression of miR-155 in both macrophages and hepatocytes via TLR4 and NFκB-driven transcription. Inhibition or genetic deletion of miR-155 in this model blunted macrophage activation and cytokine production. Exosomes loaded with miR-155 mimetics could be delivered to hepatocytes and other liver cells to correct some of the defects observed in miR-155-deficient animals. Remarkably, endogenous miR-155 and miR-122 were elevated in serum collected after controlled “binge-drinking” in human study subjects, and these exosomes also conveyed information to cultured monocytes, altering their production of TNF and IL-1. Together these data suggest that extracellular communication between hepatocytes and innate immune cells via exosomal miRNAs regulates inflammation in response to alcohol consumption.

The theme of regulation of inflammatory responses by miRNA-containing exosomes was extended by Dr. Ryan O’Connell (University of Utah). His pioneering work on miR-155 and miR-146 demonstrated their opposing roles in inflammatory processes mediated by various cell types in several tissues and disease settings. Recent work in his laboratory showed that both of these miRNAs are released by bone-marrow-derived dendritic cells in a fashion dependent on Rab27 and neutral sphingomyelinase (N-SMase) activity, and that these miRNAs could be exchanged between cells separated by a filter that prevents cell-cell contact. Transferred miR-146a reduced recipient cells’ response to bacterial lipopolysaccharide, a classical innate immune stimulant in vitro and in vivo. In addition, transferred miR-155 was found to directly repress the 3’ UTR of target genes in recipient cells, supporting the possibility that functional miRNA transfer via exosomes could be used as a therapeutic modality for regulating inflammation. Getting these miRNAs to the right cell types in vivo remains an important challenge to bringing this technology to the clinic.

In addition to exosomes, high density lipoprotein (HDL) particles carry miRNAs and other extracellular RNAs in blood. Abnormal pro-inflammatory HDL is associated with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Dani Michell (Vanderbilt University), a postdoctoral fellow in Kasey Vickers’ laboratory, discussed her work, conducted in collaboration with Amy Major’s laboratory, on miRNAs in HDL in SLE. HDL from subjects with SLE contained increased levels of miR-22-3p and miR-192-5p compared with HDL from healthy control subjects. Blocking miR-22 with locked nucleic acid inhibitors in vivo reduced spleen size and interferon production, and affected some clinical features in a mouse model of lupus. Experiments aimed at defining source and recipient cells in this system indicated that monocytes are much better than T lymphocytes at taking up HDL-associated miRNAs. It will be interesting to learn how HDL-associated miRNAs regain gene regulatory function in recipient cells.

The final presentation focused on lymphocytes as source cells for naturally occurring exRNAs in body fluids. Immuno-compromised mice with a mutation that specifically blocks lymphocyte development exhibit altered serum extracellular miRNA profiles. In support of the idea that lymphocytes themselves are an important source of ex-miRNAs, the most reduced exRNA species detected was miR-150, a miRNA highly expressed by lymphocytes. Activated T lymphocytes secrete vesicles that are enriched for tRNA fragments and miRNAs including miR-150. Rigorous purification revealed that these vesicles have characteristics of exosomes, including defined density, size, and protein markers including the tetraspanin CD9. Cellular fractionation also revealed tRNA fragment and miRNA enrichment in membrane fractions containing multivesicular bodies. Whether these extracellular lymphocyte-derived RNAs mediate cell-to-cell communication or not, signal-mediated reduction of cellular miRNAs certainly alters gene regulation in activated T lymphocytes. Thus, exRNA secretion may have important roles in regulating inflammatory processes in both source and recipient cells.

These topics will certainly remain on the mind of immunologists that attended the exRNA symposium — at least until Immunology 2017, to be held in Washington DC next May.

Non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs), for example microRNAs (miRNAs), are frequently dysregulated in cancer and other diseases, and have shown great potential as tissue-based markers for cancer classification and prognostication. ncRNAs are present in membrane-bound vesicles, such as exosomes, in extracellular human body fluids. Circulating miRNAs are also present in human plasma and serum and cofractionate with the Argonaute2 (Ago2) protein and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Since miRNAs and other ncRNAs circulate in the bloodstream in highly stable forms, they may be used as blood-based biomarkers for cancer and other diseases. A knowledge base of non-invasive biomarkers is a fundamental tool for biomedical research in this field.

In 2012, miRandola was developed as the first database of circulating extracellular miRNAs (Russo et al., 2012). miRandola is a comprehensive, manually curated collection and classification of circulating extracellular miRNAs. We recently updated miRandola with 271 papers, 2695 entries, 673 miRNAs and 12 long non-coding RNAs. The future direction of the database is to be a resource for all potential non-invasive circulating nucleic acid biomarkers.


miRandola is the first online resource which gathers all the available data on circulating RNAs into one environment (see Figure). It represents a useful reference tool for anyone investigating the role of extracellular RNAs as biomarkers, as well as their physiological function and their involvement in pathologies.

The database is constantly updated as soon as new data is available, and the online submission system is a crucial feature which helps to ensure that the system is always up-to-date. We are working on a second version of the database to increase the amount of data and to improve usability. miRandola is available online at

The Extracellular RNA Communication (ERC) Consortium Data Management and Resource Repository (DMRR) has released the latest version of the exRNA Atlas (BETA). This release contains preliminary data generated by the consortium and analyzed using the exceRpt small RNA-seq pipeline.

Key features of this release include:

  • Searches
    • Faceted search of exRNA profiles across biofluids, diseases or exRNA isolation method.
    • Drill-down subsetting of analyzed biosamples using interactive sunburst and linear tree diagrams.
    • Biosample partition grids with tabular views of biosamples collected and profiled for exRNAs from a biofluid/disease/experiment combination.

  • Summaries
    • Grid view of all studies submitted to the Data Coordination Center (DCC).
    • Barchart summaries of exRNA profiling datasets.
    • Tool usage summary grid displaying usage of exRNA profiling data analysis tools by ERC consortium members as well as other members of the scientific community.

Currently, the search and summary views in the Atlas can be accessed only by ERC Consortium members. If you are unable to login, please contact the Data Coordination Center for assistance.

A public version of the exRNA Atlas will be released next month.


Watch a video tutorial highlighting all features in the current release of the exRNA Atlas.

Want to share your knowledge of a particular exRNA gene with the broader scientific community? Want to reach readers through both the “traditional” peer-reviewed literature as well as the sixth-most accessed website in the world? If so, continue reading about our three-way partnership between the journal GENE, the Gene Wiki project at Wikipedia, and the Extracellular RNA Communication Program (ERCP):


  1. What is it? The goal of the Gene Wiki is to create a comprehensive Wikipedia article for every human gene. To incentivize authors to improve Wikipedia content, GENE is now soliciting new gene-specific review articles under a new dual-publication model. ExRNA genes are especially desirable and authors are invited to create two separate versions of their review (one for the journal, and one in wikipedia). More on the partnership here: Gene Wiki Reviews: Marrying crowdsourcing with traditional peer review.
  2. How long should the review article be? The length of the review article is up to you! Since you are the expert on the exRNA gene you’re writing about, the length is based on whatever you think is necessary to describe the current state of the field.
  3. How long should the wikipedia article be? We are targeting a final length of approximately 1200 words (though longer and more detailed articles are certainly welcome)
  4. How are the two versions different? One version is targeted at professional scientists following typical academic and editorial standards. The second version is written for the Wikipedia audience and includes a slightly heavier emphasis on a general audience. Both versions will be peer-reviewed together, but for copyright reasons, these two versions must be separate works that have no substantial similarity. Some examples of review articles and wikipedia entries published under this model include:
  5. I am busy but intrigued, what is the time line? We generally suggest a 2-3 month deadline, but since this is an ongoing series in the journal, the time line is flexible and can be worked around your schedule. Don’t be discouraged from participating because you are busy now. Make the commitment to submit when your schedule permits.
  6. Do I have to go at this alone? Absolutely not! If you have colleagues who would make good co-authors for the review, feel free to solicit their assistance.
  7. Do I have to write the wiki article all at once? Nope. Our goal is to incentivize you, the expert, to make your knowledge about your exRNA gene accessible. If it’s easier for you to write the wiki article in pieces, go ahead and do so! As long as the wiki entry is complete by the time you submit your manuscript, we will be happy to accept your review article.
  8. The gene I work on doesn’t make much sense to write about alone, how should I contribute? Genes that work in concert can be tackled as a pair as with this example:
  9. Why should I do this? By publishing an exRNA gene-specific review article, you help your scientific colleagues stay abreast of the current literature on your favorite gene. By publishing under the dual publication model (ie- on wikipedia), you help make your favorite exRNA gene more accessible to everyone allowing more people to understand the importance of your field of research. Everyone wins!
  10. How do I get in on this? Check to see whether or not your favorite exRNA gene could use some serious contributions on wikipedia. If so, contact me. Include your exRNA gene of interest in the email, and your preferred deadline for the manuscript submission.

Looking forward to hearing from you!