Dr. Katherine Elvira recently spoke with Nick Allan about her work developing lab-on-a-chip (microfluidic) technologies to investigate how drugs enter human cells and to analyze how they perform when given to patients. Dr. Elvira is the Canada Research Chair in New Materials and Techniques for Health Applications and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Victoria, Canada.
Please tell us about your current work.
Katherine Elvira: My group currently builds microfluidic devices to create artificial cells and tissues from the bottom up. It takes a really long time (over ten years!) and a lot of money (over $2 billion US dollars) to develop new drugs. It is incredibly frustrating, but also inefficient, when a significant proportion of these potential new drugs fail during clinical trials. We think that it would be a great idea to be able to predict the in vivo behaviour of drug candidates early on in the discovery process using in vitro tests. Our research ends up being very interdisciplinary. We design and build the chips themselves, so we do some engineering, but we also design the artificial cells, so do some chemistry and biochemistry. If you want more proof of how interdisciplinary our research is, we also have a project with Phillips Brewing and Malting Co. looking at beer on a chip!
It’s going great. I have an amazing team of researchers at UVic, and they are a delight to work with. I am especially proud of the undergraduate students in my lab. We are doing the beer project completely with undergraduate students. We have a paper on this in the pipeline, and all my graduate students also seem to be writing papers at the moment! It’s looking to be a very exciting year.
What are the reactions to date?
Katherine Elvira: I think people are excited. There are a lot of different applications for our work, and it is easy to visualize what we do because we take incredibly mesmerizing videos to gather data from our chips. I was very excited to be invited to present this work at the Gordon Research Conference on Drug Metabolism this year. These are really prestigious conferences and they are always looking for new cutting-edge work. Our work was also the subject of a fantastic short video by the super talented Julian Sketchley, and undergraduate student at UVic, which won a prize at the UVic Research Reels competition last year.
Do you have a publication you are most proud of?
Katherine Elvira: I am super proud of the work we are currently in the process of publishing. I can’t talk about it much at the moment, but watch this space! Or, more accurately, keep an eye on our website and Twitter feed.
How has the microfluidic industry changed during your career?
Katherine Elvira: I think we have, as a community, become better at commercialising products from academic labs. With new technologies developed in academic labs, there can sometimes be an initial phase where everything is so exciting that we perhaps forget about how they can be used outside of our labs. I like being super excited about my research, and the freedom to be creative is one of the huge advantages of being an academic, but I am also pragmatic about how academic research fits into the wider world. I have seen a lot more microfluidic companies founded and microfluidic products be commercialised during the last ten years or so.
What trend are you most concerned with in the industry today?
Katherine Elvira: I think what worries me the most is a lack of openness. Both with regards to what the industry is developing, but also with regards to what data is acquired and why. I’ve had some really interesting conversations in the last couple of months with companies who see their role from a wider perspective, and who are actively challenging the secrecy so inherent in pharma, for example. I am a huge advocate for re-thinking the way that companies (and academia!) develop products and do research. For example, by crowd sourcing or collaborating with non-traditional sources. I think we should all be thinking about our impact and role in society.
How do you see the fields of microfluidics and point of care assays evolving in the future?
Katherine Elvira: I think it will become commonplace to use microfluidic devices in a load of different environments for quick answers. For example, now you go to see a doctor, where they take some kind of sample from you, then send it off to a lab somewhere for testing, while you wait (and probably worry) for the test results for a few days or weeks, and then you have to go back to the doctor to learn the test result. The power of microfluidic technologies is that these tests should be able to be performed directly in the doctor’s office during that first visit, and you would get the results right then as well.
How will microfluidics impact medical device diagnostics? / How does / will the pharma work impact/relate to medical device diagnostics?
Katherine Elvira: The power of microfluidic devices is that we are able to miniaturise every laboratory process onto a chip the size of a postage stamp. This includes everything from sample preparation, to incubation of reagents or cells, and, crucially, on-chip analysis using biosensors and suchlike. This means that medical diagnostic devices based on microfluidic technologies have obvious advantages such as being able to perform analyses on tiny amounts of samples (on the microliter scale or lower). However, in my opinion, the most exciting microfluidic technologies enable you to do something you couldn’t do before. For example, the aim of my current research is to be able to build bespoke artificial cells for drug testing in pharma. There is no way we could do this without harnessing the power of microfluidic technologies.
What do you think are the biggest opportunities and challenges for companies developing point of care diagnostics?
Katherine Elvira: I am a Scientific Mentor for the Creative Destruction Lab, an international program for exciting seed-stage science and technology start-ups. I think that companies that are constantly looking for new developments from the research perspective will have a huge advantage over companies that prefer a more traditional approach, especially for point of care diagnostics. The field of microfluidics is changing so fast, and my feeling is that companies who don’t innovate might get left behind. Canada is a fantastic country for this type of research. There are many funding opportunities that foster collaborations between industry and academia, where new academic research is applied to create competitive advantages to industrial products and processes.
Do you have advice for StarFish readers?
Katherine Elvira: Keep an eye on the microfluidics community, it is the future!