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Endometriosis is defined by the presence of extrauterine endometrial-like tissue, which can cause pain and infertility in 10% of reproductive-age women. To date, the pathogenesis is poorly understood resulting in significant diagnostic delays and poor therapeutic outcomes in many women. Small extracellular vesicles (sEVs) (<200 nm) are cell-derived vesicles containing molecules that can influence gene expression and behaviour in target cells. One such cargo are microRNAs (miRNAs), which are short, non-coding RNAs mostly 19-25 nucleotides in length that regulate post-transcriptional gene expression. This mini-review focuses on the role of sEV-miRNAs, which are conceivably better biomarkers for endometriosis than free miRNAs, which reflect the true pathophysiological state in the body, as sEV-encapsulated miRNAs are protected from degradation compared to free miRNA and provide direct cell-to-cell communication via sEV surface proteins. sEV-miRNAs have been implicated in the immunomodulation of macrophages, the proliferation, migration and invasion of endometrial cells, and angiogenesis, all hallmarks of endometriosis. The diagnostic potential of sEV-miRNA was investigated in one study that reported the sensitivity and specificity of two sEV-miRNAs (hsa-miR-22-3p and hsa-miR-320a-3p) in distinguishing endometriosis from non-endometriosis cases. Only three studies have explored the therapeutic potential of sEV-miRNAs in vivo in mice-two looked into the role of sEV-hsa-miR-214-3p in decreasing fibrosis, and one investigated sEV-hsa-miR-30c-5p in suppressing the invasive and migratory potential of endometriotic lesions. While early results are encouraging, studies need to further address the potential influence of factors such as the menstrual cycle as well as the location and extent of endometriotic lesions on miRNA expression in sEVs. Given these findings, and extrapolating from other conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and pre-eclampsia, sEV-miRNAs could present an attractive and urgently needed future diagnostic and therapeutic target for millions of women suffering from endometriosis. However, research in this area is hampered by lack of adherence to the International Society for Extracellular Vesicles 2018 guideline in separating and characterising sEVs, as well as the World Endometriosis Research Foundation Endometriosis Phenome and Biobanking Harmonisation Project protocols.

Original publication




Journal article


Hum Reprod

Publication Date



endometriosis, exosomal microRNAs, exosomes, miRNAs, sEV-miRNAs, small extracellular vesicles