Innovative Visualization and Quantification of Extracellular Vesicles Interaction with and Incorporation in Target Cells in 3D Microenvironments

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Extracellular vesicles (EVs) showed therapeutic properties in several applications, many in regenerative medicine. A clear example is in the treatment of osteoarthritis (OA), where adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells (ASCs)-EVs were able to promote regeneration and reduce inflammation in both synovia and cartilage. A still obscure issue is the effective ability of EVs to be internalized by target cells, rather than simply bound to the extracellular matrix (ECM) or plasma membrane, since the current detection or imaging technologies cannot fully decipher it due to technical limitations. In the present study, human articular chondrocytes (ACHs) and fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLSs) isolated from the same OA patients were cocultured in 2D as well as in 3D conditions with fluorescently labeled ASC-EVs, and analyzed by flow cytometry or confocal microscopy, respectively. In contrast with conventional 2D, in 3D cultures, confocal microscopy allowed a clear detection of the tridimensional morphology of the cells and thus an accurate discrimination of EV interaction with the external and/or internal cell environment. In both 2D and 3D conditions, FLSs were more efficient in interacting with ASC-EVs and 3D imaging demonstrated a faster uptake process. The removal of the hyaluronic acid component from the ECM of both cell types reduced their interaction with ASC-EVs only in the 2D system, showing that 2D and 3D conditions can yield different outcomes when investigating events where ECM plays a key role. These results indicate that studying EVs binding and uptake both in 2D and 3D guarantees a more precise and complementary characterization of the molecular mechanisms involved in the process. The implementation of this strategy can become a valuable tool not only for basic research, but also for release assays and potency prediction for clinical EV batches.

Original languageEnglish
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 9 2020


  • confocal microscopy
  • extracellular matrix
  • extracellular vesicles
  • flow cytometry
  • mesenchymal stem cells
  • microfluidics
  • orthopedics
  • osteoarthritis


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