Microfluidics for healthcare and drug discovery
Dr Katherine Elvira, Canada Research Chair

Research

Drug Discovery

Artificial membranes as in vitro models for drug transport in the human body

It is hard to predict the in vivo behaviour of a drug candidate early in the development process, yet too many drugs fail in clinical trials due to unacceptable characteristics. The Elvira Lab uses microfluidic platforms to design and build droplet-based systems to create lipid bilayers. The modularity of these systems allows each component to be customised to provide highly biomimetic environments.

Healthcare

Microfluidic platforms for hospital-based patient analytics

Being able to rapidly and accurately assess patient status and deterioration is crucial for high-quality healthcare. Microfluidic platforms are a promising technology since they are able to accurately manipulate tiny amounts of fluids. We can integrate biosensors in these platform to make them standalone disposable entities, or they can be designed to feed into current hospital-based analytical technologies and processes.

Microfluidic Technologies

Fundamental microfluidic research and engineering challenges

The Elvira Lab aims to develop robust and innovative microfluidic platforms, so we study the fundamental processes and components of microfluidic systems. We are interested in surfactant development and kinetics, surface chemistry, droplet behaviour, new materials and fabrication processes, simulation and computational structure optimisation.

Commercialisation

Technology transfer from the laboratory to the real world

So that our microfluidic platforms have the potential to be used outside of academic laboratories, it is important to develop and foster close collaborations with industry and end-users, such as pharma and medical doctors. The Elvira Lab is always seeking new contacts and relationships, ranging from consulting to grants applications and projects, both long and short term.

Team

Dr Katherine Elvira

MSci PhD ARCS

Assistant Professor; Canada Research Chair

Elanna Stephenson

BSc

PhD Student

Kaitlyn Ramsay

BSc (Hons)

PhD Student

Jaime Korner

BSc

PhD Student

Caleb de Hoog

Undergraduate Student

Alberto Escobar

Undergraduate Student

Katie Lewis

Undergraduate Student

Harbir Johal

Undergraduate Student

Click here for alumni.

Key Publications

See Google Scholar for full publication list and metrics.

A microfluidic platform for the rapid determination of distribution coefficients by gravity assisted droplet-based liquid-liquid extraction, C. E. Poulsen, R. C. R. Wootton, A. Wolff, A. J. deMello & K. S. Elvira, Analytical Chemistry, 2015, 87, 6265.

The aim of this research was to use microfluidic technologies to provide an original improvement to a method that has not been updated in decades, namely the determination of distribution coefficients. The platform provides clear advantages to the traditional shake-flask method (it is 48 times faster, uses 99% less reagents, has very low user sensitivity and higher reproducibility), whilst being as simple as possible: the platform makes use of picolitre-sized droplets to take advantage of the large surface-area-to-volume ratios, but uses a separation chamber that falls in the milli-fluidic regime to enable the use of gravity for phase separation. To allow this platform to be used in commercial settings, it was fabricated using cyclic olefin copolymer at a cost per device of around 1 USD and manufactured using commercial bulk injection molding, rather than using the more standard PDMS.

Droplet confinement and leakage: Causes, underlying effects, and amelioration strategies, A. P. Debon, R. C. R. Wootton & K. S. Elvira, Biomicrofluidics, 2015, 9, 024119.

A roadblock in the use of microfluidic platforms in commercial settings is the surprising lack of fundamental research into the stability of micro-droplets. They are often assumed to be self-contained and independent reaction vessels, but our research shows that the stability of droplets is highly affected by the surfactant used, its concentration, the device surface, flow rates and droplet storage conditions. Due to the popularity of “droplet-based microfluidics” it is important that the microfluidic community develops an in-depth understanding of droplet behaviour to enable robust droplet platforms. This paper represents the first systematic study of droplet behaviour in which we examined 44 different oil and surfactant combinations, which allowed us to define 20 different droplet failure modes and classify them according to the underlying physical effect. We also provide a model for surfactant distribution within a microfluidic system so that we can explain the behavior of surfactants that causes each droplet failure mode to occur. This research enabled us to provide the microfluidic community with a series of practical steps to ameliorate droplet failure modes in laboratory environments.

The past, present and potential for microfluidic reactor technology in chemical synthesis, K. S. Elvira*, X. Casadevall i Solvas, R. C. R. Wootton & A. J. deMello,* Nature Chemistry, 2013, 5, 905.

This paper is a peer-reviewed perspective piece rather than a traditional review and its popularity highlights the interest it has garnered in the field and the applicability of its content. Our aim when writing this perspective was to provide a critical assessment of the origins of the field, the use of microreactor technology for chemical synthesis, and why microfluidic platforms have yet to fulfill their true potential. We explain problems with current research, and identify methodological techniques that we believe have blocked the wider application of microfluidic technologies. We conclude with seven experimental challenges which, when accomplished, will allow microreactor technology to become a ubiquitous technique in both academic and industrial environments.

A microfluidic approach for high-throughput droplet interface bilayer (DIB) formation, C. E. Stanley*, K. S. Elvira*, X. Z. Niu, A. D. Gee, O. Ces, J. B. Edel & A. J. deMello, Chemical Communications, 2010, 46, 1620.

Droplet interface bilayers (DIBs) are model artificial membranes that resemble the environment found in cells. The first work in this field was published in 2006, however all methods for the formation and manipulation of these membranes were manual and yielded networks of at most tens of DIBs, which is too low for many applications. We developed a very simple microfluidic platform for the creation of symmetric, asymmetric and three-dimensional DIB networks. The platform is capable of producing these DIBs at very high-throughput compared to traditional methods, and in a variety of sizes. In addition, we were the first to create DIBs with a biologically relevant lipid.

Vacancies

Please submit a cover letter and CV if you feel you may be well-suited to one of these positions.

Undergraduates and Internships

Exceptional undergraduate students from all over Canada are encouraged to apply for an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award.
University of Victoria undergraduate students intersted in developing their laboratory skills and experiencing the research environment should contact us regarding CHEM 298, 398, 399 and 499 projects.

Graduate Students

We are currently full! Keep an eye out for future opportunities to join the group. Applicants should have a strong background in science or engineering. Degree-level laboratory experience and experience in research laboratories are highly desirable, though not essential. Experience in the field of microfluidics is a bonus.
Students who may be eligible for an NSERC Scholarship should get in touch to discuss writing a proposal together - bonuses are available for exceptional students.
All students will have to formally apply for Graduate Studies at the University of Victoria. See here for details regarding the application process, stipends and scholarships.

Postdoctoral Researchers

We fully support suitable Postdoctoral Research candidates in their application for external funding, such as the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowships Program and Mitacs Elevate for collaborations with industry.
We would also like to hear from companies who might be interested in jointly employing a postdoctoral researcher to undertake a commercially-focused research project.