A&S alumnus-led firm joins fight against COVID-19 with portable DNA test

March 25, 2020 by Michael McKinnon – A&S News

This story was updated April 2, 2020 to include additional information.

The Government of Ontario is purchasing nearly 1 million portable COVID-19 test kits from Spartan Bioscience, a biotech firm led by a Faculty of Arts & Science alumnus.

The announcement follows news of a $9.5-million contract between Spartan and Alberta Health Services for 250 handheld devices and 100,000 test kits. Both purchases are pending Health Canada approval, with the first shipments expected to arrive next month.

“We think portable, rapid COVID-19 testing will be important to help control the pandemic. It is gratifying to see a made-in-Canada solution helping Canadians,” says Dr. Paul Lem, CEO of Spartan Bioscience.

By adapting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID-19 DNA test to its own Spartan Cube, Spartan Bioscience is bringing portable testing to airports, cruise ships and communities across the country — and ultimately around the world.

“We think it’s a game changer,” says Lem, who earned his bachelor of science in human bi-ology from the University of Toronto in 1998 as a member of University College. He received his medical degree from the University of Ottawa in 2002 before returning to U of T’s medical microbiology residency program. 

“We’re seeing headlines about how there’s a global shortage in testing," Lem explains. "Can-ada is no exception; we have a huge shortage across the entire country. We also have remote towns and Northern communities where they collect swabs and sometimes can’t get results back for nine or 10 days, and the virus is spreading in the meantime. Especially in a country like ours that’s so spread out, we’re going to need these portable testing devices to control COVID-19.”

The Spartan Cube, two people holding a small cube.
The Spartan Cube.

The Cube is a small box-like device that collects and analyzes DNA without the need to send samples to a traditional lab, making it ideal for in-field diagnostic testing. 

Spartan’s technology already has regulatory approvals worldwide, including from Health Canada, FDA and in Europe. Spartan’s customers include leading organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, the CDC, the New York State Department of Health and Fortune 500 companies. 

Lem says the pandemic has created an all-hands-on-deck situation, with all of Spartan’s 70 staff devoted to adapting the CDC’s test to the Cube.

“This is our whole reason for existing,” explains Lem. “Our mission has always been to bring DNA testing out of the lab and into these portable personal DNA analyzers. It’s like home pregnancy tests or home glucose tests that gave everyone access to their test results.

“We’re seeing in real time how powerful it would be to have portable COVID-19 tests: imagine every school community centre, town, small hospital having access to these rapid results. We have a huge responsibility to get these tests in the hands of Canadians as fast as possible.”

That has meant adapting the CDC’s COVID-19 test to the Spartan Cube, getting emergency Health Canada approval for this use and ramping up production.

In late March, Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, announced the government is leveraging its purchasing power to ensure Canadian innova-tions, such as the Spartan Cube, can start saving lives sooner. As confirmed by Trudeau that same day, the federal government has signed a letter of intent with Spartan Bioscience and two other Canadian companies to fight the pandemic. 

“We know Canadian companies are among the most innovative and agile in the world, and we are very confident that we’re going to be able to work with them to respond to the pressing needs in our health care system,” Trudeau said in a news conference. 

Hearing the announcement was a validation of the hard work Lem has led since founding Spartan Bioscience 14 years ago. 

“We all felt really honoured,” says Lem. “This reminds us why we come into work each day. People’s lives are at stake. The virus is exponentially spreading. The work we do is important.”

For Lem, that work started with a dream enabled at the U of T.

“Thanks to U of T, I had the training I needed for this moment in history when COVID-19 hit Canada,” he says. “It’s so surreal to say that. I would never have guessed.”

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