Cancer is a fatal human disease. Early diagnosis of cancer is the most effective method to prevent cancer development and to achieve higher survival rates for patients. Many traditional diagnostic methods for cancer are still not sufficient for early, more convenient and accurate, and noninvasive diagnosis. Recently, the use of microRNAs (miRNAs), such as exosomal microRNA-21(miR-21), as potential biomarkers was widely reported. This initial systematic review analyzes the potential role of exosomal miR-21 as a general biomarker for cancers. A total of 10 studies involving 318 patients and 215 healthy controls have covered 10 types of cancers. The sensitivity and specificity of pooled studies were 75% (0.70–0.80) and 85% (0.81–0.91), with their 95% confidence intervals (CIs), while the area under the summary receiver operating characteristic curve (AUC) was 0.93. Additionally, we examined and evaluated almost all other issues about biomarkers, including cutoff points, internal controls and detection methods, from the literature. This initial meta-analysis indicates that exosomal miR-21 has a strong potential to be used as a universal biomarker to identify cancers, although as a general biomarker the case number for each cancer type is small. Based on the literature, a combination of miRNA panels and other cancer antigens, as well as a selection of appropriate internal controls, has the potential to serve as a more sensitive and accurate cancer diagnosis tool. Additional information on miR-21 would further support its use as a biomarker in cancer.
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