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


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 this causes too many drugs to fail in clinical trials. 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.

Artificial Cells and Tissues

Building artificial cells and tissues from the bottom up

Cells are complex entities. Using microfluidic technologies the Elvira Lab builds artificial cells and tissues from the bottom up. In other words, we build them from their fundamental components, such as lipids and proteins. This means that we can build designer artificial cells and tissues to answer fundamental biological questions.

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.


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. The Elvira Lab is always seeking new contacts and relationships, ranging from consulting to grant applications and projects, both long and short term. Get in touch.

If you want to learn more about our lab facilities, the CFI Navigator gives a great overview of the key equipment in the Elvira Lab.
For more information about my current research program, watch this video by Julian Sketchley.


The Elvira Lab specialises in developing microfluidic technologies to build designer artificial cells and tissues. New drugs take 10-15 years to develop, cost ~2.6 billion USD each and many fail because we cannot predict how they interact with human cells. We build designer artificial cells on a chip the size of a postage stamp that mimic live cells. This is important because we can use them to test new drugs early in the drug discovery process and see whether they are likely to work or not. Our artificial cells are designed to give us insight into, for example, how cancer drugs behave in cells.

We are experts in many different types of microfluidic technologies, use our artificial cells to build artificial tissues and even dabble in making beer on a chip! If you are interested in our research, here we highlight some of our recent media interactions. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.


Dr Katherine Elvira


Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair and MSHRBC Scholar

Alejandro Forigua, BSc (Hons)

PhD Student

Sean Farley, BSc

PhD Student

Seun Daini, BSc (Hons)

Master's Student

Paige Allard

PhD Student

Navinder Hundal

Undergraduate Student

Kirandeep Gill, PhD

Postdoctoral Researcher

Natalie Taylor

Undergraduate Student

Mariem Mahmood

Undergraduate Student

Click here for alumni.

Key Publications

See Google Scholar for a full publication list and metrics. Publications can be downloaded from UVicSpace.

Challenges and opportunities in achieving the full potential of droplet interface bilayers
E. B. Stephenson,* J. L. Korner* & K. S. Elvira, Nature Chemistry, 2022, 14, 862

Artificial cells can be used to mimic features of living cells so that we can easily study how they work. Here we discuss droplet interface bilayers as a new and versatile cell membrane model, how they can be used in wide-ranging applications from drug discovery to biochemistry, and the challenges that remain to enable these model membranes to reach their full potential.

Biomimetic artificial cells to model the effect of membrane asymmetry on chemoresistance
E. B. Stephenson & K. S. Elvira, Chemical Communications, 2021, 57, 6534

The cell membrane changes during the course of diseases such as cancer, and this affects the movement of drugs into cells. Here we use our bespoke artificial cells to model this change in cell membranes on a microfluidic device. Our artificial cells are custom-built to model cancer cells. We show that this breakdown in the cell membrane might help explain why we develop resistance to chemotherapy drugs such as Doxorubicin. This paper was highlighted as part of the Emerging Investigators Collection in Chemical Communications.

Programmed assembly of bespoke prototissues on a microfluidic platform
K. Ramsay, J. Levy, P. Gobbo & K. S. Elvira, Lab on a Chip, 2021, 21, 4574

Here we make artificial tissues (prototissues) from artificial cells (protocells) that have collective behaviours. Our microfluidic platform allows us to control the exact composition of the prototissues. This means that we can control the physical and chemical behaviour of this soft material and we can identify how these behaviours depend on protocell composition. This paper chosen by the editor to be featured as part of the Lab on a Chip HOT Articles 2021 themed collection.

A plug-and-play modular microcapillary platform for the generation of multicompartmental double emulsions using glass or fluorocarbon capillaries
K. Ramsay,* S. Farley* & K. S. Elvira, Lab on a Chip, 2021, 21, 2781

Would you like to use microfluidic technologies in your lab? This is not easy to do if you do not have a background in developing and using microfluidic devices. Here we have developed a plug-and-play microfluidic device that uses off-the-shelf components to make the actual device. They are held together using ``junction boxes'' cast from moulds fabricated using a bench-top 3D printer. Using such a simple set-up we can make complex droplet-within-droplet systems. Get in touch if you want to try one out in your lab, we might be able to mail you some junction boxes.

A bespoke microfluidic pharmacokinetic compartment model for drug absorption using artificial cell membranes
J. L. Korner,* E. B. Stephenson* & K. S. Elvira, Lab on a Chip, 2020, 20, 1898

How can we predict whether a potential new drug will enter human cells? We have developed a microfluidic device to create bespoke artificial cells made from the same molecules (phospholipids) that make up human intestinal cells. We can quantify how a drug proxy travels from the intestine, into an intestinal cell and into the blood stream. Our initial tests shows that our new model outperforms the current commercial technique. This paper was highlighted as part of the Emerging Investigators collection in Lab on a Chip.

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. We also provide a poster of the 20 droplet failure modes we identified, together with amelioration strategies that can be used to troubleshoot them in the lab.


Undergraduates Students

Undergraduate students from all over Canada are encouraged to apply for an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA).

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 currently have fully funded positions for Master's or PhD researchers starting in 2024 on projects to build customisable artificial cells and tissues for drug discovery. Further information and application details can be found here.

If no open positions are listed, to enquire about possible Master's and PhD positions in the group, please email Dr Elvira using the subject line "New Student Application". Include the following documents in your email: 1) a statement detailing your research interests and prior experience (1 page), 2) an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) statement describing your thoughts about EDI in science and previous experience working with a diverse group of co-workers (1/2 page), 3) a CV, 4) transcripts (they do not have to be official) and 5) names and contact information for two references. You need to have a Bachelor’s degree (Master’s applicants), or a Master’s degree (PhD applicants), in science or engineering (such as chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacy, health sciences, bioengineering) and have taken degree-level lab courses. Degree-level lab-based research experience is also required. Experience with microfluidic technologies is not required. We are sorry that because of the large numbers of applications we receive, we can only answer applicants selected for interview.

Students eligible for NSERC funding should get in touch to discuss writing a proposal together.

After acceptance into our research group, all students will have to formally apply for Graduate Studies at the University of Victoria. Details about the support and expectations for graduate students, your annual stipend, the application process, and much more can be found here.

Postdoctoral Researchers

We fully support suitable Postdoctoral Research candidates in their application for external funding, such as the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowships Program, Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships and Mitacs Elevate for collaborations with industry. Here is more information about postdoctoral positions on the University of Victoria website, including details about Banting deadlines (note that the University deadline is usually in August), and other available postdoctoral fellowships.

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.