Cellular prion protein (PrPc) is a physiological constituent of eukaryotic cells. The cellular pathways underlying prions spread from the sites of prions infection/peripheral replication to the central nervous system are still not elucidated. Membrane-derived microvesicles (MVs) are submicron (0.1–1 µm) particles, that are released by cells during plasma membrane shedding processes. They are usually liberated from different cell types, mainly upon activation as well as apoptosis, in this case, one of their hallmarks is the exposure of phosphatidylserine in the outer leaflet of the membrane. MVs are also characterized by the presence of adhesion molecules, MHC I molecules, as well as of membrane antigens typical of their cell of origin. Evidence exists that MVs shedding provide vehicles to transfer molecules among cells, and that MVs are important modulators of cell-to-cell communication. In this study we therefore analyzed the potential role of membrane-derived MVs in the mechanism(s) of PrPC diffusion and prion infectivity transmission. We first identified PrPC in association with the lipid raft components Fyn, flotillin-2, GM1 and GM3 in MVs from plasma of healthy human donors. Similar findings were found in MVs from cell culture supernatants of murine neuronal cells. Furthermore we demonstrated that PrPSc is released from infected murine neuronal cells in association with plasma membrane-derived MVs and that PrPSc-bearing MVs are infectious both in vitro and in vivo. The data suggest that MVs may contribute both to the intercellular mechanism(s) of PrPC diffusion and signaling as well as to the process of prion spread and neuroinvasion
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