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Tumor-derived exosomes and microvesicles in head and neck cancer: Implications for tumor biology and biomarker discovery


Correspondence: Prof. Dr. Thomas Kislinger, Ontario Cancer Institute, University Health Network, Toronto, Canada


Additional corresponding author: Professor Fei-Fei Liu, E-mail:


Exosomes and microvesicles (MVs) are nanometer-sized, membranous vesicles secreted from many cell types into their surrounding extracellular space and into body fluids. These two classes of extracellular vesicles are regarded as a novel mechanism through which cancer cells, including virally infected cancer cells, regulate their micro-environment via the horizontal transfer of bioactive molecules: proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids (DNA, mRNA, micro-RNAs; oncogenic cargo hence often referred to as oncosomes). In head and neck cancer (HNC), exosomes and MVs have been described in Epstein Barr Virus (EBV)-associated nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC), as well as being positively correlated with oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) progression. It has therefore been suggested that HNC-derived vesicles could represent a useful source for biomarker discovery, enriched in tumor antigens and cargo; hence fundamentally important for cancer progression. This current review offers an overall perspective on the roles of exosomes and MVs in HNC biology, focusing on EBV-associated NPC and OSCC. We also highlight the importance of saliva as a proximal and easily accessible bio-fluid for HNC detection, and propose that salivary vesicles might serve as an alternative model in the discovery of novel HNC biomarkers.