Flow cytometry (FC) is a powerful method for counting single cells and measuring their molecular components. There is increasing interest in applying flow cytometry to the analysis of extracellular vesicles (EV), but EVs are orders of magnitude smaller than the cells for which FC instruments and protocols were originally designed. To catalyze the development of new instruments and assays for EV flow cytometry, three scientific societies came together to form the EV Flow Cytometry Working Group (evflowcytometry.org):
ISEV, the International Society of Extracellular Vesicles
ISAC, the International Society for Advancement of Cytometry, and
ISTH, the International Society for Thrombosis and Haemostasis.
The working group first performed two standardization studies, distributing standards and samples to EV-FC laboratories worldwide to enable an objective comparison of methods, instruments, controls, and analytical tools. Those initial studies led to the realization that a standard framework for reporting experimental results is essential.
The working group has now published that standard in the Journal of Extracellular Vesicles. It is called MIFlowCyt-EV, the Minimum Information to report for Flow Cytometry studies of Extracellular Vesicles. The MIFlowCyt-EV reporting framework incorporates the existing Minimum Information for Studies of EVs (MISEV) guidelines and Minimum Information about a Flow Cytometry experiment (MIFlowCyt) standard.
The figure above outlines the 7 main categories of information included in the framework. Not all EV-FC experiments will involve all seven areas, but any area touched on by an experiment should follow the MIFlowCyt-EV reporting guidelines.
MIFlowCyt-EV provides a structure for sharing EV-FC results, but it does not mandate the use of specific instruments or protocols, since the field of EV flow cytometry is still rapidly evolving. MIFlowCyt-EV accommodates this evolution, while providing information needed to evaluate and compare different approaches. Consistent reporting of the results of EV flow cytometry studies will improve the ability to quantitatively compare results from different laboratories and support the development of new instruments and assays for improved measurement of EVs.
Reference Welsh JA, et al. MIFlowCyt-EV: a framework for standardized reporting of extracellular vesicle flow cytometry experiments. J Extracell Vesicles (2020) doi: 10.1080/20013078.2020.1713526
Illinois researchers developed a method to detect microRNA cancer markers with single-molecule resolution, a technique that could be used for liquid biopsies.
From left: Taylor Canady, postdoctoral scholar; Andrew Smith, professor of bioengineering; Nantao Li, graduate student; Lucas Smith, postdoctoral scholar; and Brian Cunningham – professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; director of Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Thanks to the University of Illinois News Bureau for allowing us to share this article here.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A fast, inexpensive yet sensitive technique to detect cancer markers is bringing researchers closer to a liquid biopsy – a test using a small sample of blood or serum to detect cancer, rather than the invasive tissue sampling routinely used for diagnosis.
Researchers at the University of Illinois developed a method to capture and count cancer-associated microRNAs, or tiny bits of messenger molecules that are exuded from cells and can be detected in blood or serum, with single-molecule resolution. The team published its results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
“Cancer cells contain gene mutations that enable them to proliferate out of control and to evade the immune system, and some of those mutations turn up in microRNAs,” said study leader Brian Cunningham, an Illinois professor of electrical and computer engineering. Cunningham also directs the Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Lab at Illinois.
“There are specific microRNA molecules whose presence and concentration is known to be related to the presence and aggressiveness of specific types of cancer, so they are known as biomarkers that can be the target molecule for a diagnostic test,” he said.
Cunningham’s group developed a technique named Photonic Resonator Absorption Microscopy to capture and count microRNA biomarkers. In collaboration with professor Manish Kohli at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, they tested PRAM on two microRNAs that are known markers for prostate cancer.
They found it was sensitive enough to detect small amounts that would be present in a patient’s serum, yet also selective enough to detect the marker among a cocktail of molecules that also would be present in serum.
“One of the main challenges of biosensing is to maintain sensitivity and selectivity at the same time,” said Nantao Li, a graduate student and co-first author. “You want it to be sensitive enough to detect very small amounts, but you don’t want it to pick up every RNA in the blood. You want this specific sequence to be your target.”
Each dot seen in this PRAM image represents one microRNA that has bound to the sensor. Image courtesy of Nantao Li
PRAM achieves both qualities by combining a molecular probe and a photonic crystal sensor. The probe very specifically pairs to a designated microRNA and has a protective cap that comes off when it finds and binds to the target biomarker. The exposed end of the probe can then bind to the sensor, producing a signal visible through a microscope.
Each individual probe that binds sends a separate signal that the researchers can count. This means researchers are able to detect much smaller amounts than traditional methods like fluorescence, which need to exceed a certain threshold to emit a measurable signal. Being able to count each biomarker also carries the added benefit of allowing researchers to monitor changes in the concentration of the biomarker over time.
“With PRAM, we squirt a sample into a solution and get a readout within two hours,” said postdoctoral researcher Taylor Canady, a co-first author of the study. “Other technologies that produce single-molecule readouts require extra processing and additional steps, and they require a day or more of waiting. PRAM seems like something that could be much more feasible clinically. In addition, by using an optical signal instead of fluorescence, we could one day build a miniaturized device that doesn’t need a trained laboratory technician.”
The PRAM approach could be adapted to different microRNAs or other biomarkers, the researchers say, and is compatible with existing microscope platforms.
“This approach makes the idea of performing a ‘liquid biopsy’ for low-concentration cancer-related molecules a step closer to reality,” Cunningham said. “This advance demonstrates that it is possible to have an inexpensive and routine method that is sensitive enough to require only a droplet of blood. The results of the test might tell a physician whether a regimen of chemotherapy is working, whether a person’s cancer is developing a new mutation that would make it resistant to a drug, or whether a person who had been previously treated for cancer might be having a remission.”
The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the U. of I. and the National Institutes of Health supported this work. Illinois chemistry professor Yi Lu and bioengineering professor Andrew Smith were coauthors of the work.
Reference Canady TD, Li N, Smith LD, Lu Y, Kohli M, Smith AM & Cunningham BT. Digital-resolution detection of microRNA with single-base selectivity by photonic resonator absorption microscopy. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. (2019) 116:19362-19367. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1904770116 PMID: 31501320
Thanks to Eileen Leahy from Elsevier and Chhavi Chauhan, Director of Scientific Outreach for the Journal of Molecular Diagnostics, for sharing this post here.
A novel non-invasive technique may detect human papilloma virus-16, the strain associated with oropharyngeal cancer, in saliva samples, reports The Journal of Molecular Diagnostics.
Philadelphia, December 13, 2019 – Unfortunately, cancers that occur in the back of the mouth and upper throat are often not diagnosed until they become advanced, partly because their location makes them difficult to see during routine clinical exams. A report in The Journal of Molecular Diagnostics, published by Elsevier, describes the use of acoustofluidics, a new non-invasive method that analyzes saliva for the presence of human papilloma virus (HPV)-16, the pathogenic strain associated with oropharyngeal cancers (OPCs). This novel technique detected OPC in whole saliva in 40 percent of patients tested and 80 percent of co published by Elsevier, describes the use of acoustofluidics, a new non-invasive method that analyzes saliva for the presence of human papilloma virus (HPV)-16, the pathogenic strain associated with oropharyngeal cancers (OPCs). This novel technique detected OPC in whole saliva in 40 percent of patients tested and 80 percent of confirmed OPC patients.
“OPC has an approximate incidence of 115,000 cases per year worldwide and is one of the fastest-rising cancers in Western countries due to increasing HPV-related incidence, especially in younger patients. It is paramount that surveillance methods are developed to improve early detection and outcomes,” explained co-lead investigator Tony Jun Huang, PhD, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
“Considering these factors, the successful detection of HPV from salivary exosomes isolated by our acoustofluidic platform offers distinct advantages, including early detection, risk assessment, and screening,” added Dr. Huang. This technique may also help physicians predict which patients will respond well to radiation therapy or achieve longer progression-free survival.
Exosomes are tiny microvesicles originating within cells that are secreted into body fluids. They are believed to play a role in intercellular communication and their numbers are elevated in association with several types of cancers. Acoustofluidics is an advanced technology that fuses acoustics and microfluidics. Fluid samples are analyzed using a tiny acoustofluidic chip developed to isolate salivary exosomes by removing unwanted particles based on size, leaving exosome-rich concentrated samples that make it easier to detect tumor-specific biomarkers.
Acoustofluidic exosome isolation chip for salivary exosome isolation. The microfluidic channels are shown by red dye, and the coin demonstrates the size of the chip. Two pairs of gold interdigital transducers are deposited along the channel, which separates particles according to size.
In this study investigators analyzed saliva samples from 10 patients diagnosed with HPV-OPC using traditional methods. They found that the technique identified the tumor biomarker HPV-16 DNA in 80 percent of the cases when coupled with droplet digital PCR. Since this method is independent of sample variability arising from changes in saliva viscosity and collection method, it may prove ideal for use in clinical settings.
Dr. Huang highlighted some of the technique’s features, including automated and fast exosome isolation (less than five minutes of processing time compared to approximately eight hours of processing time using benchmark technologies). Analyses can be performed at relatively low cost and at points of care. Also, it is suitable for repeated and continuous monitoring of tumor progression and treatment, unlike traditional biopsy.
“With these features, the acoustofluidic technology has the potential to significantly exceed current industry standards, address unmet needs in the field, help expedite exosome-related biomedical research, and aid in the discovery of new exosomal biomarkers,” commented Dr. Huang.
“The saliva exosome liquid biopsy is an effective early detection and risk assessment approach for OPC,” said co-lead investigator David T.W. Wong, DMD, DMSc, of the Center for Oral/Head and Neck Oncology Research, School of Dentistry at the University of California Los Angeles, CA, USA. “The acoustofluidic separation technique provides a fast, biocompatible, high-yield, high-purity, label-free method for exosome isolation from saliva.” According to the researchers, this technology can also be used to analyze other biofluids such as blood, urine, and plasma.
The study was an international collaboration between Duke University, UCLA, and University of Birmingham (UK). According to Prof Hisham Mehanna, Director of the Institute of Head and Neck Studies and Education, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK, “The results are a testament to the power of interdisciplinary research and international collaboration.”
Reference Wang Z et al. Acoustofluidic salivary exosome isolation: A liquid biopsy compatible approach for human papillomavirus—associated oropharyngeal cancer detection. Journal of Molecular Diagnostics v22, January 2020. doi: 10.1016/j.jmoldx.2019.08.004.
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (D.T.W.W.: UG3/UH3 TR002978, UH3 TR000923, U01 CA233370, UH2 CA206126), (T.J.H.: R01GM132603, R01 HD086325), (D.TW.W. and F.L.: R21 CA239052) and Canadian Institute of Health (CIHR) Doctoral Foreign Student Award (J.C.), Tobacco Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP) Predoctoral Fellowship (J.C.). Funding was also provided by the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham (QEHB) Charity UK and the Get-A-Head charity UK.
This blog post was adapted from a press release by the Baylor College of Medicine. See this related video from the ERCC Webinar Series for a discussion of the exceRpt pipeline used in the analysis presented here.
Scientists have improved their understanding of a new form of cell-cell communication that is based on extracellular RNA (exRNA). RNA, a molecule that was once thought to function only inside cells, is now known to participate in a cell-cell communication system that delivers messages throughout the body. To better understand this system, the Extracellular RNA Communication Consortium (ERCC), which includes researchers from Baylor College of Medicine, created the exRNA Atlas resource, the first detailed catalog of exRNAs in human bodily fluids. They also developed web-accessible computational tools other researchers can use to analyze exRNAs from their own data. The study (Murillo, Thistlethwaite, et al. 2019), published in the journal Cell, contributes the first ‘map of the terrain’ that will enable scientists to study the potential roles exRNA plays in health and disease.
“About 10 years ago, scientists began discovering a new communication system between cells that is mediated by exRNA,” said corresponding author Dr. Aleksandar Milosavljevic, professor of molecular and human genetics and co-director of the Computational and Integrative Biomedical Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine. “The system seems to work in normal physiological conditions, as well as in diseases such as cancer.”
The Milosavljevic lab worked with other members of the ERCC to analyze human exRNAs from 19 studies. They soon realized that the system was significantly more complex than initially assumed. Due to that unanticipated complexity, existing laboratory methods failed to reproducibly isolate exRNAs and their carriers. To help create the first map of this complex system of communication, Milosavljevic and his colleagues used computational tools to deconvolute the complex experimental data. Deconvolution refers to a mathematical method and a computational algorithm that separates complex information into components that are easier to interpret.
“Using computational deconvolution, we discovered six major types of exRNA cargo and their carriers that can be detected in bodily fluids, including serum, plasma, cerebrospinal fluid, saliva, and urine,” said co-first author Oscar D. Murillo, a graduate student in Baylor’s Molecular and Human Genetics Graduate Program working in the Milosavljevic lab. “The carriers act like molecular vessels moving their RNA cargo throughout the body. They include lipoproteins – one of the major carriers is High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL or the “good cholesterol”) – a variety of small protein-containing particles, and small vesicles, all of which can be taken up by cells.”
The researchers found that the computational method helps reveal biological signals that could not previously be detected in individual studies due to the naturally complex variation in the biological system. For example, in an exercise challenge study their computational approach revealed differences before and after exercise in the proportions of the exRNA cargo in HDL particles and vesicles in human plasma.
“Exercise increased a proportion of RNA molecules involved in regulating metabolism and muscle function, suggesting adaptive response of the organism to exercise challenge,” Milosavljevic said. “This finding opens the possibility that in other conditions, both in health or disease, the computational method might identify signals that could have physiological and clinical relevance.”
To help researchers around the world with their analyses, Murillo, Milosavljevic and their colleagues have made a computational tool available online (https://exRNA-Atlas.org).
“We anticipate that it will take a combination of scientific knowledge, enhanced experimental techniques to isolate cargo and carriers in bodily fluids, and advanced computational methods to deconvolute and interpret the complexity of the exRNA communication system,” Murillo said.
Other contributors to this work from Baylor College of Medicine include William Thistlethwaite, Matthew E. Roth, Sal Lakshmi Subramanian, Rocco Lucero, Neethu Sha, and Andrew R. Jackson. See the full article for details about the numerous other contributors from the consortium.
This work is part of the NIH Extracellular RNA Communication Consortium paper package and was supported by the NIH Common Fund Extracellular RNA Communication Program (grant U54 DA036134).
Reference Murillo OD, Thistlethwaite W, et al. exRNA Atlas analysis reveals distinct extracellular RNA cargo types and their carriers present across human biofluids. (2019) Cell177:463-477. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2019.02.018. PMID: 30951672.
Abstract Combining established techniques enables large-scale production of potentially therapeutic extracellular vesicles enriched with specific miRNAs.
Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are currently being intensively studied for their therapeutic potential following promising clinical results and recent regulatory approvals of cell-based therapies. However, for the excitement surrounding EVs to ultimately yield useful therapies, critical challenges remain to be overcome. Specifically, although microRNA (miRNA) is often cited as a critical component of EV therapeutic activity, specific miRNA amounts in native EVs can be quite low (far less than one miRNA per one EV on average in many cases), raising concern about the potency of EV-based therapies. Further, scalable biomanufacturing of therapeutic EVs is nontrivial and could present a barrier to translation.
To address these issues, Yoo et al. used a combination of established, commercially available technologies to define a method for producing large quantities of EVs enriched with specific miRNAs. First, they used lentiviral vectors to generate stable HEK293 cell lines capable of producing EVs with more than 2000-fold enrichment of specific miRNAs. Then, a hollow fiber bioreactor was employed for continuous production of EVs from the same stable cell lines for up to 30 days, with additional gains in miRNA levels observed compared with EVs harvested from cells grown in conventional cell culture flasks. Last, tangential flow filtration was used to concentrate miRNA-enriched EVs by ~200-fold without precipitate formation. To validate the potential therapeutic utility of EVs produced through this scheme, miR-133a-3p–enriched EVs were injected intraperitoneally in mice. The result was an increase in the level of circulating miR-133a-3p after four hours. The broad applicability of the techniques used in this process suggests that it could be used to increase blood levels of any desired miRNA via EV association.
Further optimization of this method will be necessary to enable production of EVs from different primary cell types, and this production scheme still contains potential manufacturing bottlenecks, such as lentiviral transfection. The ultimate therapeutic potential of miRNA delivery via EVs produced by the process still remains to be established. However, the general approach described is widely applicable to platform production of miRNA-enriched EVs. More importantly, all the technologies employed are commercially available and should be within reach for a majority of academic labs and small companies to access or acquire. Thus, this process could serve as an important template for advancing research and overcoming the lack of method standardization in development of EV therapeutics, taking the entire field closer to clinical translation.
Highlighted Article K. Yoo, N. Li, V. Makani, R. Singh, A. Atala, & B. Lu. Large-scale preparation of extracellular vesicles enriched with specific microRNA. Tissue Eng. Part C: Methods (2018) 24: 637-644. doi: 10.1089/ten.TEC.2018.0249 PMID: 30306827.
Pharmacodynamic Biomarkers and DM There is now strong support for the concept that a panel of splicing events may serve as a pharmacodynamic biomarker for go/no go decisions in drug development for myotonic dystrophy type 1 (DM1) and Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Data establishing splicing event sensitivity to free MBNL levels has converged with the natural history of alternative splicing patterns in DM patients to yield a subset of splicing events with the sensitivity and reproducibility to evaluate candidate therapeutics in early stage clinical trials. Quantitative pharmacodynamic biomarkers are invaluable in de-risking industry drug discovery and development, as they facilitate early stage assessment of molecular target engagement and modulation and may inform dose ranging studies. The only caveat is the dependence of these measures upon repeated muscle biopsies (a risk reduced, but not eliminated, by more tolerable needle biopsies). The identification and validation of a non-invasive assay of patient splicing status would be a valuable step forward for clinical trials in DM.
Early Support for a Non-Invasive Biomarker for DM1 Dr. Thurman Wheeler and colleagues at Massachusetts General, Harvard Medical, and Boston Children’s have explored the concept that a subset of extracellular RNAs (exRNAs) released into blood or urine may: (a) reflect alternative splicing status in DM-affected tissues and (b) thereby serve as an easily accessible pharmacodynamic biomarker platform for DM1 (Antoury et al., 2018). These studies were supported in part by a grant to facilitate “Development of Biomarkers for Myotonic Studies” from Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation/Wyck Foundation.
The research team initially found that > 30 transcripts that are alternatively spliced in DM1 muscle biopsies were detectable in human blood and urine samples; follow-up studies confirmed the presence of RNAs in extracellular fluids/exosomal particles. Normalized DMPK expression levels in urine from DM1 patients, by droplet digital PCR, were ~50% of unaffected controls. Assessments of DM1-established alternative splicing events showed that a subset (10/33) also occurred in urine exRNA, including being conserved in longitudinal (6-26 month) studies of the same patients. Assessments of alternative splicing events in blood exRNA did not yield the same value.
Using principal component analysis of 10 alternative splicing events observed in urine exRNA, the research team then generated a putative composite biomarker panel for DM1. The ensuing predictive model of alternative splicing in DM1 proved to be 100% accurate in comparisons of training and independent validation data sets to distinguish DM1 from unaffected controls and in distinguishing disease status of subsequently enrolled subjects. The research team also linked alternative splicing patterns in urine exRNA to variation in DM1 clinical phenotypes, suggesting that modeling of urine exRNA alternative splicing may allow both the tracking of disease progression and the impact of candidate therapeutics.
Finally, to address questions as to the source of urine exRNA, the team assessed alternative splicing in urinary tract cells of DM1 mouse models (the ubiquitous Mbnl1 ko and the tissue-specific HSALR). While kidney and bladder cells of the Mbnl1 ko reflected patterns in skeletal muscle, assessments of the same tissues in the HSALR showed no differences from control mice. These data strongly suggested that the exRNAs assessed in urine reflect exosomes released from urinary tract cells. Some of the alternatively spliced transcripts in urine exRNA also were shown to be altered by antisense oligonucleotide drugs previously shown to correct splicing patterns in DM1 mouse models. The research team’s parallel studies of Duchenne muscular dystrophy also supported the concept that urine exRNA has utility as a pharmacodynamic biomarker in drug intervention studies.
Towards a Non-Invasive Biomarker for DM1 Taken together, these data provide compelling proof of concept that a panel of alternative splicing events assessed in urine may serve as a robust composite biomarker of DM1 progression and as a tool for assessment of candidate therapeutics. A non-invasive biomarker such as this would greatly extend the ability to perform repeated measurements in longitudinal natural history studies (as a disease progression biomarker) and in interventional clinical trials (as patient stratification and pharmacodynamic biomarkers), including making assessment of pediatric DM1 patient cohorts feasible. Although it is not essential to formally qualify a biomarker, existing regulatory agency guidance documents (see References below) provide a valuable evidentiary framework for moving non-invasive biomarker work towards an accepted clinical tool for DM1.
References Antoury L, Hu N, Balaj L, Das S, Georghiou S, Darras B, Clark T, Breakefield XO, Wheeler TM. Analysis of extracellular mRNA in human urine reveals splice variant biomarkers of muscular dystrophies. Nat Commun. (2018) 9: 3906. doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-06206-0. PMID: 30254196
Framework for Defining Evidentiary Criteria for Biomarker Qualification. Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) Evidentiary Criteria Writing Group. October 2016. (announcement) (pdf)
Guidance for Industry and FDA Staff: Qualification Process for Drug Development Tools. (pdf)
Updated guidelines on Minimal Information for Studies of Extracellular Vesicles have now been published in the Journal of Extracellular Vesicles (JEV, Taylor & Francis) as MISEV2018.
The original MISEV2014 guidelines were released in 2014 by the Board of Directors of the International Society for Extracellular Vesicles (ISEV) to provide guidance in standardization of protocols and reporting in the EV field. Accumulating more than 800 citations since its release, the MISEV2014 guidelines have achieved the aim of becoming a guiding standard for researchers. A 2016 survey of ISEV members reaffirmed the need for guidelines and recommended that they be updated regularly…but with broad community input to accommodate and shape the quickly developing field.
MISEV2018 updates the topics of nomenclature, separation, characterization, and functional analysis, integrating the contributions of over 380 ISEV members, a strong tribute to the commitment of ISEV members. A two-page checklist summarizing the main points is also included.
So what’s new? MISEV2018 recommends the use of ‘extracellular vesicle’ as the preferred generic terminology for use in publications, in part due to challenges in confirming the biogenesis mechanisms of exosomes, microvesicles, and other particles, and in part due to the vague and varied uses of other terms. Separation and concentration options are now many and diverse; researchers should pick the methods most fit for downstream purpose and, more importantly, report these clearly and accurately. The EV-TRACK database (van Deun et al., Nature Methods, 2017) is supported as a means to record these details in order to improve clarity and reproducibility. To establish presence of EVs, examples of EV-enriched markers are provided, but the need for “negative” (better: “depleted”) markers is also highlighted. MISEV2018 adds topology as a recommended form of EV characterization, for example identifying where in or on a vesicle your favorite protein or RNA resides. It also recommends functional analysis of the ‘non-EV’ fractions to confirm EV-specific function (or not!). An appreciation of EV heterogeneity is included with a reminder that ‘larger EVs matter’ and a request to explore a range of EV subtypes in functional studies. Finally, although some of the specific details contained in MISEV2018 are focused on mammalian components, it is appreciated that the guidelines are applicable to non-mammalian and non-eukaryote research.
Lotvall J, Hill AF, Hochberg F, et al. Minimal experimental requirements for definition of extracellular vesicles and their functions: a position statement from the international society for extracellular vesicles. J. Extracell. Vesicles. (2014) 3: 26913. doi:10.1080/20013078.2018.1535750. PMID:25536934.
Witwer KW, Soekmadji C, Hill AF, et al. Updating the MISEV minimal requirements for extracellular vesicle studies: building bridges to reproducibility. J. Extracell. Vesicles. (2017) 6: 1396823. doi:10.1080/20013078.2017.1396823. PMID:29184626.
Théry C, Kenneth W Witwer KW, Aikawa E, et al. Minimal information for studies of extracellular vesicles 2018 (MISEV2018): a position statement of the International Society for Extracellular Vesicles and update of the MISEV2014 guidelines. J. Extracell. Vesicles. (2018) 7: 1535750. doi:10.1080/20013078.2018.1535750.
Despite being one of the earliest known classes of non-coding RNA molecules, transfer RNAs (tRNAs) are still notoriously difficult to study. The challenge is largely due to this molecule’s secondary structure, chemical modifications to its constituent nucleotides (see figure), and the multiplicity of tRNA genes. As the number of non-coding RNA datasets proliferates, it is becoming increasingly important for tRNA genes to be accurately annotated. In a recent study, Thomas Tuschl from Rockefeller University and colleagues tackled this problem by developing a new protocol for sequencing tRNAs. The new method enabled them to assemble an atlas of human tRNAs for other researchers to use in analyzing their non-coding RNA data.
Hydro-tRNA Sequencing Transfer RNAs have thermodynamically stable secondary and tertiary structures, and their constituent nucleotides are highly modified by RNA editing. Both of these characteristics are problematic for traditional RNA sequencing methods. The key to the Tuschl lab’s protocol, called hydro-tRNA sequencing (hydro-tRNAseq), is a partial alkaline hydrolysis step that breaks the 60-100 nucleotide-long tRNA into smaller fragments with fewer RNA modifications. These fragments, 19-35 nucleotides in size, have weaker secondary structure and fewer RNA modifications per fragment than the parent tRNA.
Applying the method to short RNA extracted from human embryonic kidney (HEK293) cells resulted in an increase in the fraction of reads mapped to tRNA between 2% and 40%, depending on the depth of sequencing. The short fragment length also improved read accuracy per base compared to standard tRNA sequencing.
To develop a thorough and representative reference set of human tRNAs, the HEK293 dataset was subjected to iterative cycles of mapping to existing reference tRNAs followed by manual curation. In each round, all transcripts with an error distance (number of mismatches, insertions, and deletions) of 1-2 from a given tRNA were kept as candidate reference sequences if they could be attributed to a tRNA isoacceptor (i.e. a different tRNA that binds to the same amino acid). If not, assuming that other mismatches were caused by misidentifying a modified base, transcripts with more than 10% mismatches compared to reference were expanded into a set of all possible combinations of RNA modifications and included in the reference pool (see figure). This mapping and selection process was repeated until there were no longer any modified positions left with a mismatch frequency over 10% compared to reference.
Candidate pre-tRNA genes were obtained by mapping the final tRNA reference sequences back to the genome. Altogether, this analysis was able to account for 93% of the 114 million reads in the deepest library of HEK293 cells’ tRNAs.
tRNA Modification Sites The team identified sites of modification from the high frequency of mismatches during mapping caused by read errors there during reverse transcription. Here the reference nucleotide is at ring center, known modification outside the ring, and frequency of each nucleotide read at that site inside the ring. Source: Cell Reports
The Added Power of SSB PAR-CLIP Though hydro-tRNAseq greatly improved the reference dataset of human tRNAs, there was still a risk that it alone would miss pre-tRNAs expressed at low levels or processed quickly into mature tRNA. Previous efforts to assay that ephemeral population employed ChIP-seq of POLR3, the polymerase that transcribes all tRNA genes, but doing so assumed that polymerase binding always led to expression and complete processing. The Tuschl lab focused instead on SSB, a protein that binds to the 3′ end of pre-tRNAs, immunoprecipitating tRNAs crosslinked to SSB using a method called PAR-CLIP. As predicted, almost half of the reads from their SSB PAR-CLIP experiments mapped to pre-tRNAs. Combining SSB PAR-CLIP with hydro-tRNAseq allowed the team to better identify mature and pre-tRNAs with improved, accurate, nucleotide-level resolution.
This study supplies the community with several new and useful resources. Hydro-tRNAseq provides a new method to overcome many of the struggles of tRNA sequencing analyses. Combining this method with SSB PAR-CLIP enabled the construction of a comprehensive atlas of pre-tRNAs and mature tRNAs in humans. This methodology can now be applied to study the tRNA complement in other species to further dissect tRNA biology.
Reference Tasos Gogakos T, Brown M, Garzia A, Meyer C, Hafner M, & Tuschl T. Characterizing Expression and Processing of Precursor and Mature Human tRNAs by Hydro-tRNAseq and PAR-CLIP. Cell Reports (2017) 20: 1463-1475. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2017.07.029
Quantitative measurements of the number, size, and cargo of extracellular vesicles (EVs) are essential to both basic research on how EVs are produced and function, and to application of this knowledge to the development of EV-based biomarkers and therapeutics. Flow cytometry is a popular method for analyzing EVs, but their small size and dim signals have made this a challenge using the conventional flow cytometry approaches developed for analysis of cells (1). Moreover, established flow cytometry calibrators, standards, and experimental design considerations for cell studies are not regularly used in EV studies. As a result, there is significant variation in instrument set up, sample preparation, and data reporting for flow cytometric measurements of EVs. These issues are increasingly appreciated (1-5), but much needs to be done to develop consensus on best practices. To address these issues, members of the International Society for Extracellular Vesicles (ISEV), the International Society for Advancement of Cytometry (ISAC), and the International Society on Thrombosis and Hemostasis (ISTH) are participating in a tri-Society Working Group, which includes several ERCC members, to improve the reporting of methods and results for FC-based EV measurements.
Reporting of EV Measurement Methods
A flow cytometer is an instrument, not a method. An EV analysis method that uses a flow cytometer involves many instrument setup, sample preparation, and data analysis decisions, including: 1) what signal to use for EV detection (light scatter or fluorescence); 2) how to resolve single EVs from the simultaneous occurrence of many EVs in the laser at the same time (aka coincidence or “swarm”); 3) how to gate the data to focus on EVs versus background events (without introducing artifacts or mis-representing the data); 4) how to estimate the size of the particles detected; 5) how to estimate the brightness of the particles detected; 6) how to verify that the particles detected are EVs and not other particles present in the sample, to name just some of the many decisions involved.
Several years ago, ISAC developed and introduced the Minimum Information about a Flow Cytometry Experiment (MIFlowCyt) (6), a set of guidelines to promote the sharing, reproducibility, and proper interpretation of flow cytometry data. These guidelines were developed with cell analysis, and particularly high parameter immunophenotyping, in mind, but they also apply to multiparameter EV analysis. However, there are several additional details about an EV measurement that are essential to include. The ISEV-ISAC-ISTH EV FC Working Group has been conducting a series of standardization studies to develop a consensus on the essential elements of an FC-based EV measurement that should be reported. These studies will be reported, along with the consensus reporting guidelines, in a paper planned for the coming year.
Standards and Calibrators for EV Analysis
Standards and calibration are essential components of any analytical method. These standards, and their use, are well established for flow cytometry and include 1) counting beads that can be used to calibrate sample flow rates for reporting of absolute particle concentrations, 2) fluorescence intensity standards that enable particle brightness to be expressed in NIST-traceable absolute units of mean equivalent soluble fluorochromes (MESF) (7) or equivalent reference fluorochromes (ERF) (8); 3) antibody-capture standards that can be used to estimate antibody binding in immunofluorescence measurements; and 4) NIST-traceable particle size standards.
Most of these standards and calibrators, and their methods of use, can be applied to EV measurements, with some caveats and cautions. Particle size standards, in particular, are often mis-used in FC-based EV measurements due to a lack of understanding of the effect on light scatter of refractive index (RI), which is different for polystyrene, silica, and lipids. With care, however, these differences can be used in conjunction with Mie scattering theory to enable estimates of EV size based on FC light scatter measurements. Commercially available fluorescence intensity and antibody-capture standards are generally designed for cell measurements, and tend to be brighter than EVs, but still have value for facilitating comparison of measurements between labs or instruments. EV-scaled intensity and antibody-binding standards will be a useful addition to the EV analysis toolbox, and are in development by several groups and companies.
A major unmet need is for EV standards, which will have use not only in FC-based EV measurements, but across the EV field. This is a challenging prospect, as an ideal EV standard will reflect not only the size and number of EVs, but also cargo, including surface molecules (for immunophenotyping) and intra-vesicular cargo, including nucleic acids, soluble proteins, and small molecules. Moreover, EVs are themselves quite diverse, raising the question of what type of EV, if any, might represent a universal standard. EV preparations for various cultured cell lines are commercially available from a number of sources but, in general, these have not been subjected to rigorous, independent characterization of these essential features or their uniformity, stability, or reproducibility. Such characterization is essential for validation of any putative standard and may be the subject of future activities by the ISEV-ISAC-ISTH EV FC Working Group.
Conclusions and Prospects
As EV research expands to impact every area of biology, issues with rigor and reproducibility are front and center. Translating observations made in the basic research lab into mechanistic understanding of EV actions and clinically actionable knowledge requires robust and validated analytical methods. Careful attention to the description of methods, standardization and calibration of analytical instrument and methods, and reporting of results are essential. Community efforts by the ERCC and relevant international societies will be key to helping researchers maximize the value of their work to the broader community.
In future blog posts we will discuss the controversial issue of whether to use light scatter or fluorescence to detect EVs, as well as new EV detection methods we’ve developed using fluorogenic membrane probes.
1. Nolan JP. Flow cytometry of extracellular vesicles: potential, pitfalls, and prospects. Curr. Protoc. Cytom. (2015) 73:13.14.1-13.14.16. PMID: 26132176. doi: 10.1002/0471142956.cy1314s73. 2. Chandler WL. Measurement of microvesicle levels in human blood using flow cytometry. Cytometry B Clin. Cytom. (2016) 90:326-336. PMID: 26606416. doi: 10.1002/cyto.b.21343. 3. Coumans FA, et al. Methodological guidelines to study extracellular vesicles. Circ. Res. (2017) 120:1632-1648. PMID: 28495994. doi: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.117.309417. 4. Nolan JP, Duggan E. Analysis of individual extracellular vesicles by flow cytometry. Methods Mol. Biol. (2018) 1678:79-92. PMID: 29071676. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-7346-0_5. 5. Nolan JP, Jones JC. Detection of platelet vesicles by flow cytometry. Platelets (2017) 28:256-262. PMID: 28277059. doi: 10.1080/09537104.2017.1280602. 6. Lee JA, et al. MIFlowCyt: the minimum information about a flow cytometry experiment. Cytometry A. (2008) 73:926-930. PMID: 18752282 doi: 10.1002/cyto.a.20623. 7. Wang L, Gaigalas AK, Abbasi F, Marti GE, Vogt RF, Schwartz A. Quantitating fluorescence intensity from fluorophores: practical use of MESF values. J. Res. Natl. Inst. Stand. Technol. (2002) 107:339-354. PMID: 27446735. doi: 10.6028/jres.107.027. 8. Wang L, Gaigalas AK. Development of multicolor flow cytometry calibration standards: Assignment of equivalent reference fluorophores (ERF) unit. J. Res. Natl. Inst. Stand. Technol. (2011) 116:671-83. PMID: 26989591. doi: 10.6028/jres.116.012.
Scientists from the ERCC have joined forces to create a CSF Consortium to pool resources and establish standard practices in the study of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).
One of the goals of the ERCC is not only to understand the fundamental biology of extracellular RNA (exRNA), but to develop exRNA-based biomarkers of disease. When such biomarkers have been found, studied, and cleared for clinical use, liquid biopsy of blood and other biofluids can enable earlier disease detection and less invasive tracking of disease progression. For neurological disorders, drawing CSF from the spinal cord has clear benefits over a more invasive brain biopsy. Progress in our technical understanding of how to accurately assess biomarkers in CSF will increase our basic understanding and promote clinical advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disease. Unfortunately, there are many inconsistencies between the processing of CSF in current studies. Data replication is often difficult, in large part due to variability across laboratories and institutions in protocols for sample isolation, purification, and analysis. Thus, the CSF Consortium, spearheaded by Dr. Fred Hochberg (https://fredhhochbergmd.com), was designed to be a resource for researchers to help minimize these discrepancies.
The CSF consortium plan calls for CSF researchers and clinicians to work together to improve standard practices. A major focus is transparency through open sharing of their work. Researchers are encouraged to establish collaborations, share in-depth details of experimental designs and reagents (including batch/lot numbers), and release any details of in-house protocol modifications. Working with the same biosamples shared through the Virtual Biorepository (VBR) enables multiple labs to compare and synchronize their protocols with one source of variability removed. The expectation is that sharing of detailed information will enable future researchers to avoid common pitfalls and plan their own experiments appropriately. Ultimately, the goal is to have open-access information available from each stage of every project: from biofluid, RNA, and extracellular vesicle (EV) collection, isolation, and storage to downstream analyses such as RT-qPCR and RNA sequencing.
If you are a CSF researcher, please contact us so that we can work with you as well!
Highlights of recent CSF Consortium efforts Saugstad et al. (2017) recently demonstrated the strength of the CSF consortium. In a collaboration between three institutions (UC San Diego, Oregon Health & Science University, and the Translational Genomics Research Institute), researchers worked together to characterize the EV and RNA composition of identical pools of CSF at each institute from patients with five different neurological disorders. This work in parallel allowed the groups to identify potential sources of variability in protocols including sample preparation, RNA isolation, and quantification of RNA via RNA sequencing and RT-qPCR. The study identified changes in EVs and RNA in the disease CSF samples and detected an enrichment of microRNAs and mRNAs related to disease in both EV and total RNA. The paper highlights the importance of stringent standard operating procedures, including the use of common standard sample collection and data analysis protocols across institutions.
In other work, Figueroa et al., 2017 performed a multi-institutional study of RNA extracted from CSF-derived EVs of patients with glioblastoma (GBM), a very aggressive form of brain cancer. (See this related blog on glioblastoma.) A key diagnostic biomarker in classical GBM is the functional status of the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR). This cell-surface receptor is the starting point of a series of signaling pathways related to cell growth. When its expression surges or it folds incorrectly, the result is cells with hyper-active signaling that never stop growing. This study involved the development of a liquid biopsy that scans RNA extracted from CSF EVs for tumor-associated amplifications and mutations in EGFR. The test has very high specificity and fair sensitivity: it almost never incorrectly flags a healthy patient as having GBM and correctly identifies almost two thirds of GBM sufferers. The clinical standard for diagnosis of GBM is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which correctly classifies most brain tumors, but in too many cases incorrectly suggests that healthy brain tissue might be cancerous. The complementarity of highly sensitive MRI and highly specific RNA liquid biopsy argues that updating the standard of care to include collection of CSF and brain images at the same time would better separate healthy from diseased brain tissue.
The CSF Consortium is casting its nets wider in its fight against glioblastoma, looking at molecules beyond EGFR in the attempt to develop an RNA-based diagnosis tool for GBM. Akers et al., 2017 developed a diagnostic panel of 9 miRNA biomarkers by analyzing the EV RNA from 135 CSF samples in 3 cohorts, followed by validation of the miRNA panel in 60 CSF samples from 2 cohorts. The researchers found that even with that fairly large sample size, the miRNA profiles in lumbar and cisternal CSF — fluid collected from the spine or the base of the neck, respectively — are significantly different, which is problematic, since cisternal CSF is much more difficult to collect. On the other hand, they also found that RNAs extracted from raw CSF had a similar profile and diagnostic power as RNAs extracted from vesicles after an initial EV purification step, which might simplify the translation of this biomarker research into the clinic.
References Akers, J.C. et al. A cerebrospinal fluid microRNA signature as biomarker for glioblastoma. Oncotarget (2017) 8: 68769-68779. Figueroa, J.M et al. Detection of wtEGFR amplification and EGFRvIII mutation in CSF-derived extracellular vesicles of glioblastoma patients. Neuro. Oncol. (2017) Advance online publication. doi: 10.1093/neuonc/nox085 Saugstad, J.A. et al. Analysis of extracellular RNA in cerebrospinal fluid. J. Extracellular Vesicles (2017) 6: 1317577.