Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a common and deadly cancer. Most cases of HCC arise in a cirrhotic/fibrotic liver, indicating that environment may play a paramount role in cancer genesis. Previous studies from our group and others have shown that, in desmoplastic cancers, there is a rich intercellular communication between activated, cancer-associated fibroblasts and cancer cells. Moreover, extracellular vesicles (EVs), or exosomes, have been identified as an important arm of this intercellular communication platform. Finally, these studies have shown that EVs can carry microRNA (miR) species in vivo and deliver them to desmoplastic cancers. The precise role played by activated liver fibroblasts/stellate cells in HCC development is insufficiently known. Based on previous studies, it appears plausible that activated fibroblasts produce signals carried by EVs that promote HCC genesis. In the current study, we first hypothesized and then demonstrated that stellate cell-derived EVs 1) can be loaded with an miR species of choice (miR-335-5p); 2) are taken up by HCC cells in vitro and more importantly in vivo; 3) can supply the miR-335-5p cargo to recipient HCC cells in vitro as well as in vivo; and 4) inhibit HCC cell proliferation and invasion in vitro as well as induce HCC tumor shrinkage in vivo. Finally, we identified messenger RNA targets for miR-335 that are down-regulated after treatment with EV-miR-335-5p. This study informs potential therapeutic strategies in HCC, whereby stellate cell-derived EVs are loaded with therapeutic nucleic acids and delivered in vivo. (Hepatology 2018;67:940–954).
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