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 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.


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.


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.

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.


Dr Katherine Elvira


Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair and MSFHR Scholar

Elanna Stephenson, BSc

PhD Student

Kaitlyn Ramsay, BSc (Hons)

PhD Student

Jaime Korner, BSc

PhD Student

Alejandro Forigua, BSc (Hons)

PhD Student

Arash Dalili, BSc, MSc, PhD

Postdoctoral Researcher

Sean Farley, BSc

Master's Student

Alex McDonald, BSc

Master's Student

Kevin Gill, BSc

Undergraduate Student

Click here for alumni.

Key Publications

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

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? Since it takes 10-15 years and over 2.6 billion US dollars to develop a new drug, predicting how a drug candidate will behave in humans is essential to making this process more efficient. We have developed a new in vitro microfluidic model that allows us to do exactly this. We use our microfluidic device to create bespoke artificial cells made from the same molecules (phospholipids) that make up human intestinal cells. With our on-chip model, 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 in vitro model outperforms the current state-of-the-art technique by a factor of three.

Microfluidic technique for the simultaneous quantification of emulsion instabilities and lipid digestion kinetics
N. Scheuble, A. Iles, R. C. R. Wootton, E. J. Windhab, P. Fischer# & K. S. Elvira,# Analytical Chemistry, 2017, 89, 9116

Does the way that food is designed affect how full you feel? This was the fundamental question that drove this research. Using specially designed glass microfluidic devices, we were able to investigate how single lipid droplets (made of medium-chain triglycerides) are digested under gastric and pancreatic conditions using β-lactoglobulin as a model for a protein-based emulsifier commonly used by the food and pharmaceutical industries. We could then compare these data to how fast the digestion occurs when multiple lipid droplets interact with each other throughout the same digestion process. The rate of digestion varies by a factor of 1.4, which is especially significant when designing lipid delivery systems, for example for poorly water-soluble drugs.

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. This paper represents the first systematic study of droplet behaviour, which allowed us to define 20 different droplet failure modes and classify them according to the underlying physical effect. We also provide the microfluidic community with a poster of the droplet failure modes and amelioration strategies that you can use to troubleshoot in the lab.

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 is a peer-reviewed perspective, rather than a traditional review and its popularity highlights the interest it has garnered in the field. 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 DIBs were created in 2006, however all methods for the formation and manipulation of these membranes up until we published this paper 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 and asymmetric DIBs, 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.


Undergraduates and Internships

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 open positions for Master's or PhD students on projects to build artificial cells and tissues on a chip 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: a statement detailing your research interests and prior experience (1 page), an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) statement describing your thoughts on EDI and previous experience working with a diverse group of co-workers (1 page), a CV, transcripts (they do not have to be the official version at this stage) and names and contact information for two references. Applicants should have a Bachelor’s degree (Master’s applicants), or a Master’s degree (PhD applicants) in a relevant science or engineering subject. Applicants should have a minimum GPA of 6.0 on the University of Victoria scale. Degree-level laboratory experience is required, as is degree-level laboratory-based research experience. Experience with microfluidic technologies is not required, though beneficial. Due to the large amount of applications received, only successful applicants will be contacted.

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

All students will have to formally apply for Graduate Studies at the University of Victoria. Details about the requirements and expectations for Master's and PhD candidates, annual stipend, the application process, support for graduate students 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.