Surface proteins on the membrane of nano-sized extracellular vesicles (EVs) not only play crucial roles in cell-to-cell communication, but also are specific binding targets for EV detection, isolation and tracking. The low abundance of protein biomarkers on EV surface, the formation of clusters and the complex EV surface network impose significant challenges to the study of EVs. Employing bulky sized affinity ligands, such as antibodies, in the detection and characterization of these vesicles often result in reduced sensitivity of detection or poor quantification of proteins on the EV surface. By virtue of their small size and high specificity, Affibody molecules emerge as a potential alternative to their monoclonal antibody counterparts as robust affinity ligands in EV research. In this study, we present a theoretical framework on the superiority of anti-HER2 Affibodies over anti-HER2 antibodies in labeling and detecting HER2-positive EVs, followed by the demonstration of the advantages of HER2 Affibodies in accessing EV surface and the detection of EVs through multiple types of approaches including fluorescence intensity, colorimetry, and fluorescence polarization. HER2 Affibodies outperformed by 10-fold over three HER2 antibody clones in accessing HER2-positive EVs derived from different human cancer cell lines. Furthermore, HRP-Affibody molecules could detect EVs from cancer cells spiked into human serum with at least a 2-fold higher sensitivity compared with that of their antibody counterparts. In addition, in fluorescence polarization assays in which no separation of free from bound ligand is required, FITC-labeled HER2 Affibodies could sensitively detect HER2-positive EVs with a clinically relevant limit of detection, whilst HER2 antibodies failed to detect EVs in the same conditions. With the demonstrated superiority in accessing and detecting surface targets over bulky-sized antibodies in EVs, Affibodies may become the next-generation of affinity ligands in the precise characterization and quantification of molecular architecture on the surface of EVs.

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