Lab on a chip


- Jody Paterson

UVic chemist Katherine Elvira holds one of her “lab on a chip” technologies for making artificial cells. Photo: UVic Photo Services.

Searching for breakthroughs in the miniaturizing of science

A miniaturized laboratory the size of a postage stamp could one day transform how scientists test potential drug treatments and diagnose disease.

The “lab on a chip” at the centre of University of Victoria chemist Katherine Elvira’s research involves miniaturized lab processes that are nearly as small as the cells being studied.

When combined with Elvira’s bespoke creation of artificial cells for use in those miniaturized labs, the UVic professor is in search of new discoveries in how new materials and techniques can be applied to health sciences, which led to her selection in 2017 as Canada Research Chair in the area.

The idea here is, ‘Can we develop in vitro technology that allows us to predict human drug behaviour long before you test it in humans?’ It takes a long time to test new drugs—10 to 15 years—with a cost of US$2.6 billion to get one successful drug to market. A significant proportion of drugs will fail when tested in humans. Can we find a better way?
— Katherine Elvira, UVic chemist and Canada Research Chair

Humans are nothing like petri dishes and not much like lab rats, but in general it’s not ethically possible to test drugs on humans until the final clinical-trial stage. That’s one of the reasons why fewer than 12 per cent of trial-stage drugs make it to market.

Elvira’s work will be a game-changer on that front. It opens the door to safer, more effective drug treatments able to manoeuvre through the complicated maze of human biology and disease that affect how a drug behaves in the body.

Recently, Elvira and her team created artificial versions of the outer cell membrane of the intestinal cells that separate the intestine from the blood stream. The cells in Elvira’s miniaturized lab replicate the stages of drug absorption inside the body using dye as a stand-in for the drug.

“We found that we could predict how rat cells could uptake these dyes with an accuracy that was far better than what the pharmaceutical industry has available now,” says Elvira. “Imagine if we had a tool that could demonstrate early on what drugs are going to work in human beings, plus allow for the elimination of those drugs that you now can see aren’t going to work.”

The cells being created in Elvira’s lab are being developed to simulate any human tissue or cell membrane for the purposes of drug testing, including the blood-brain barrier, which screens out substances in the blood more aggressively than elsewhere in the body.

That barrier has hampered development of effective drugs for brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, says Elvira.

Labs on chips also have tremendous potential to eliminate that awful wait for medical test results, notes Elvira. The day may come when doctors will take a drop of your blood to test right then and there using a lab on a chip.

“The way we do science is going to get smaller,” says Elvira. “That’s good—there’s no waste, it’s ‘green,’ it’s better. It can do what can’t be done now.”

Elvira’s research is funded through her Canada Research Chair, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.


UVic student Julian Sketchley profiles Katherine Elvira, assistant professor in UVic’s Department of Chemistry and Canada Research Chair, and her use of microfluids.

Elvira’s “lab on a chip” belongs to the field of research known as microfluidics. Academic disciplines including chemistry, biology, engineering, biotechnology and more work in the field. Microfluidic chips have diverse applications ranging from point-of-care health diagnosis to 3D printing and DNA chips, and are the basis for modern-day pregnancy tests and glucose monitoring.

Canada doesn’t yet have a degree program in microfluidics, so the multidisciplinary graduate students working in Elvira’s lab get a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in a new and dynamic area of study.

Elvira is a scientific mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab, a global initiative managed by the Rotman School of Management based in Toronto. The venture scaling program connects academic and business mentors with engineers and scientists ready to commercialize their work.

Real human cells are much more complicated and “stuffed full of things” compared to the artificial cells that Elvira creates, but her lab’s simple models are potentially better at predicting drug uptake and behaviour than anything the pharmaceutical industry has now. Cell pH level and other details can also be simulated for an even more realistic assessment.

What’s toughest about a lab the size of a postage stamp? Being able to see what’s going on. Scaling up is not an option, as everything has to stay cell-sized—no bigger than the width of a human hair.


In this story

Keywords: chemistry, health, drugs, microscope, research

People: Katherine Elvira

Publication: knowlEDGE

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