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In a tiny package: New center explores means of cell-to-cell communication

Back to Vestigo Issue 3

By Lorena Infante Lara

Abstract-looking image of cells and extracellular vesicles near them. Everything is hued in green on a black background.
Image by Tomaz Einfalt, FlickR, via A CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License.

One of the most rapidly expanding fields of basic sciences research is the study of extracellular vesicles—tiny membrane-bound particles that are actively released by cells into their environment. Originally thought to be a means of eliminating unwanted waste from cells, EVs were overlooked by researchers for many years.

This changed dramatically in the late 2000s, when the discovery that EVs carry and transmit RNA between cells rekindled interest in the field and led to its exponential growth. We now know that EVs include diverse types of vesicles and that many of them carry biologically active protein, lipid, and nucleic acid cargoes, thereby serving as a critical means of cell-to-cell communication.

Alissa Weaver, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and professor of cell and developmental biology, is at the forefront of EV research and propelled interest in the field at Vanderbilt by establishing the Program for Extracellular Vesicle Research in 2019. This highly successful program is getting an upgrade to become one of the nine official centers and institutes associated with the School of Medicine Basic Sciences.

As described by Weaver, who remains at the helm, the new Center for Extracellular Vesicle Research “includes 21 program faculty and covers diverse areas of extracellular vesicle research, ranging from basic functions of extracellular vesicles to applications in disease, including cancer, biomarkers, therapeutics, and regenerative medicine.”

Despite sitting within the Basic Sciences, the center welcomes researchers from across the university, enabling collaborations among labs in Basic Sciences, the School of Medicine, the School of Engineering, the College of Arts and Science, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

EV Center faculty members have already published together and written grant proposals for shared projects, but Weaver hopes to foster additional collaborative large grants across the center.

“An early success is a National Science Foundation grant focused on therapeutic extracellular vesicles. That project came about because of the Program in EV Research,” said Weaver, referencing a project led by Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Jamey Young that also includes Weaver and departmental colleagues Associate Professor John Wilson and Assistant Professor Ethan Lippmann. “That brought in new faculty to the program and a new focus on therapeutic EVs that we didn’t have before.”

Affiliated faculty and trainees can tap center funds that may be applied to travel or toward the use of a core facility to further a particular research project. They also have access to key equipment used for purifying and analyzing EVs. Formalizing the program as an institutional center will allow Weaver to access additional funds to support new EV pilot projects or to purchase the sophisticated equipment that is needed to explore highly nuanced aspects of EV biology.

Weaver also hopes to continue and even expand the center’s offerings to include a larger portfolio of workshops, seminars, and retreats. Following a successful inaugural (virtual) retreat, the center will hold its first in-person retreat in October at the Scarritt Bennett Center.

Even before becoming a center, the Vanderbilt Program for EV Research drew nationwide attention as a model for other institutions. Although other research centers have EV seminar series, host city-wide data clubs, or provide core-type services, no other program brings together an entire community like Vanderbilt’s Center for EV Research.

“There’s nothing really quite like this yet,” Weaver said.