Background/aims: RNA interference (RNAi), a sequence-specific gene silencing technology triggered by small interfering RNA (siRNA), represents promising new avenues for treatment of various liver diseases including hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. In plants and invertebrates, RNAi provides an important mechanism of cellular defence against viral pathogens and is dependent on the spread of siRNA to neighbouring cells. A study was undertaken to investigate whether vector-delivered RNAi can transfer between hepatic cells in vitro and in mice, and whether this exchange could extend the therapeutic effect of RNAi against HCV infection. Methods: Transmission of RNAi was investigated in culture by assessing silencing of HCV replication and expression of viral entry receptor CD81 using a human hepatic cell line and primary B lymphocytes transduced with siRNA-expressing vectors. In vivo transmission between hepatic cells was investigated in NOD/SCID mice. Involvement of exosomes was demonstrated by purification, uptake and mass spectrometric analysis. Results: Human and mouse liver cells, as well as primary human B cells, were found to have the ability to exchange small RNAs, including cellular endogenous microRNA and delivered siRNA targeting HCV or CD81. The transmission of RNAi was largely independent of cell contact and partially mediated by exosomes. Evidence of RNAi transmission in vivo was observed in NOD/SCID mice engrafted with human hepatoma cells producing CD81 siRNA, causing suppression of CD81 expression in mouse hepatocytes. Conclusion: Both human and mouse hepatic cells exchange small silencing RNAs, partially mediated by shuttling of exosomes. Transmission of siRNA potentially extends the therapeutic reach of RNAi-based therapies against HCV as well as other liver diseases.