Tomorrow's Health, Today's Research

Dr. Katherine Elvira

Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair, Tier II, Department of Chemistry
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Phone: 250-721-7165
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Research areas: Microfluidic technologies, health care and drug discovery


Research Profile:

Microfluidics in Health Care and Drug Discovery: Large-scale potential from small-scale chips.

“Chemists can do pretty much anything,” says Dr. Elvira, an assistant professor in UVic’s Department of Chemistry. “I can design a chip to manipulate a fluid to create an artificial cell. That’s pretty cool in my mind.”

Microfluidics. Dr. Elvira, who has a PhD in microfluidics from London’s Imperial College, uses her expertise to study the applications of microfluidic technologies in healthcare and drug discovery.

“Think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” says Dr. Elvira. “You have this big factory, these huge vats of chocolate and all these tubes feeding in different ingredients. That’s kind of like what we do in microfluidics, but on a miniaturized scale that fits onto a little chip the size of a postage stamp.”

A typical microfluidic platform has several access holes, along with a network of tiny channels, about 50-100 µm in diameter, within a clear polymer chip. Fluids — commonly water, oil, and drugs rather than chocolate — are introduced in a controlled manner through the access holes using pumps.

While this kind of active flow system allows for a much greater degree of control, passive flow systems are gaining popularity in point of care diagnostics because they are cheaper, more versatile and deployable to settings in which a syringe pump, a microscope, and a camera aren’t affordable.

Analytical microfluidics. “One really lovely thing we can do with microfluidics on the analytical chemistry side is look at single cells,” says Dr. Elvira. A microfluidic environment, simply by virtue of its small size, gives scientists a much greater degree of control over heat distribution, reaction volume, and flow dynamics.

“In a larger body of water, you don’t get the same level of mixing, you have hot spots and cold spots, you can’t control it,” says Dr. Elvira. “In a river, you have turbulent flow but on a microfluidic chip it is all laminar flow. It is predictable,” says Dr. Elvira.

Drug Discovery. Dr. Elvira is conducting research into artificial membranes that serve as in-vitro models for drug transport in the human body. Dr. Elvira’s team was able to successfully synthesize the first biomimetic Droplet Interface Bilayer (DIB) using a naturally occurring lipid, DOPC, rather than the more commonly used synthetic lipids. 

The cell is a very complex entity. It is also very small. “If I give you a cell and you put it in a beaker, you are going to lose it,” says Dr. Elvira. “But if I give you a cell and you put it in a droplet that’s of a comparable volume, then it is easily detected.”

Microfluidics gives us a preview into how a molecule interacts with biological entities as a prediction for how it will work in human beings — saving drug companies both time and money. Researchers can dose one side of a membrane with a given drug, see it percolate through to the other side, and analyze exactly how much has made it through the bilayer over time. They can also play around with the size of the droplet created, the interface between the bilayers, the content of the bilayer (proteins, lipids, receptors, transporters, etc), the rate of droplet flow and concentration of drug being introduced.

“The other side of microfluidics in general chemistry that is very powerful is the throughput. We can make droplets at thousands per second, so technically, you can do thousands of reactions per second,” says Dr. Elvira.

Healthcare. “Microfluidic chips can be used to fabricate products that can be used, but also can be used themselves, for instance as diagnostic tools,” says Dr. Elvira, who is investigating microfluidic platforms in hospital-based patient analytics. She envisions novel technologies, engineered to integrate with existing equipment — technologies capable of providing clinicians with continuous feedback.

Dr. Elvira isn’t talking about technologies akin to the common pregnancy test, which is technically a microfluidic tool — a passive lateral flow test, in which a small amount of fluid is manipulated and analyzed for diagnostic purposes. She is looking at a much grander scale.

“For instance, can we continuously monitor the direct impact of drugs as they are administered to a patient?” asks Dr. Elvira, who explains that valuable time is lost in a system where intermittent samples from a patient must be sent off to a lab before results can be delivered.  

The volume of data that would be generated from this type of uninterrupted feedback also has great value when it comes to statistical analysis and the search for new biomarkers.

Commercialization. Dr. Elvira, pragmatic by nature, is particularly interested in transferring microfluidic technology from the lab to the real world. “You don’t see a lot of microfluidic companies out there with products for sale,” says Dr. Elvira. “It’s that step towards commercialization that is hard.”

Dr. Elvira believes a “shift in mentality” is required before we see a significant number of products on the market. Barriers include: a lack of practicality in the academic research field, a disconnect between the needs of end-users and scientists…and a marketable chip.

A robust chip is contingent upon the material out of which it is fabricated. “Think of a drop of rain streaking down a glass window,” says Dr. Elvira. “If that happens on a chip, you are effectively leaving some of your product behind to contaminate the next drop.”

“PDMS (PolyDimethylSiloxane), the material we use for chips in the laboratory, is easy to fabricate, cheap, transparent, innocuous and inert. It works well with bioscience but it’s too hard to mass produce.” A company isn’t going to want to invest in a product in which chip production is laborious and error-prone.

“I would love it if there was a microfluidic toolbox,” says Dr. Elvira, explaining that if we could simply open up a theoretical drawer and pull out the best chip for a given application, we would be much better placed to commercialize the field. But this will only be possible once much more fundamental research has been done. As it stands, researchers must invest a substantial amount of time developing a new chip for each new application.

Challenges aside, Dr. Elvira loves the interdisciplinary nature of her work. She is also keen to ensure that her students get as much out of the laboratory as she does. “Science can be a bit of a lonely place,” says Dr. Elvira. A good mentor is indispensable and Dr. Elvira is quick to give credit to Dr. Robert Wootton.

“He is this insanely intelligent scientist who has ideas come out of him like sneezes,” says Dr. Elvira. “He was really helpful in doing what a mentor is meant to do: pushing my brain on the intellectual side; and giving me the confidence to do what I wanted to do.”

Ultimately, Dr. Elvira hopes to make a practical contribution to her field, whether that is an innovative tool or groundbreaking knowledge. “Imagine if you could make a difference in the amount of time and money it took to develop a new drug because you understood exactly how these drugs should be designed to get into a cell,” says Dr. Elvira. “That would be pretty awesome.”