With the novel coronavirus spreading at such alarming rates, it’s no wonder that companies around the world are racing to develop a quick and easy way to test for COVID-19. As luck would have it, Ottawa-based biotech firm Spartan Bioscience Inc., whose founder and CEO is a uOttawa Faculty of Medicine alumnus, was already well prepared to cross that finish line.
During the early days of the pandemic, Paul Lem and his team at Spartan Bioscience began investigating ways to convert their company’s DNA analyzers into COVID-19 testing kits. After the CDC published their “recipe” for a novel coronavirus laboratory test on their website, Lem knew it could be incorporated into their device and got to work.
“For 14 years, my team and I have had this vision that one day, there would be these portable DNA tests everywhere and everyone would have access to them,” says Lem. “Now, when I walk around my neighbourhood, everything is shut down, people are losing their jobs and you see the impact on the economy. Tens of thousands of people are sick; tons of people are dying—it’s tragic. So, my team and I, we know how important these COVID-19 tests are. That’s why we’re working so hard to develop them and ship them out.”
On January 22, 2021, Spartan Bioscience received the green light from Health Canada, authorizing the sale of the device. While the technology was restricted to research use in May 2020 to meet safety and efficacy requirements, the company took the opportunity to upgrade their sample processing kit so that it could be shipped and stored at room temperature instead of frozen.
As its name suggests, the Spartan Cube is small but mighty
The DNA analyzers, known as Spartan Cubes, are portable, highly accurate, and as easy to use as a single-serve coffee machine, which means they can be operated by non-laboratory personnel.
DNA samples are collected from inside a person’s mouth or nose with a non-invasive swab and inserted into a single-use test cartridge that has been customized to detect traces of the novel coronavirus. The cartridge is then inserted into the Cube, which spits out results—positive or negative—within the hour.
The Spartan Cube is the smallest, most portable DNA analyzer in the world. It’s also cheaper to manufacture than other analyzers on the market, making it the most affordable.
Best of all, it can be adapted to detect the presence of any organism or virus—including the coronavirus—so long as users have samples of genetic material to compare.
The technology used in the Spartan Cube has been on the market for some time and is currently used in various applications by leading organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, the CDC and the New York State Department of Health, as well as Fortune 500 companies.
Before the pandemic, the Cube’s technology was used to produce a rapid test for legionella bacteria, a deadly germ that can spread through heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. It was also used in hospitals to identify a genetic mutation in patients that could affect how they metabolize common drugs.
“The technology in the Cube itself isn’t any different,” says Lem. “We modified the cycling program and the cartridges that you place inside the Cube so it could detect the novel coronavirus. It’s like putting a new pod into your single-serve coffee machine—the coffee maker itself stays the same, but the pod gives you a different flavoured coffee.”
A longstanding relationship with uOttawa and the local start-up community
As a uOttawa medical student, Lem spent much of his time puttering around its microbiology labs, working on his DNA testing technology. With strong support from the University of Ottawa’s tech transfer office—now called Innovation Support Services—Lem was able to launch his first start-up company and secure the intellectual property rights for his portable DNA analyzers.
To convert the Cube into a COVID-19 tester, Lem has been working closely with Dr. Marc Desjardins at The Ottawa Hospital, who helped supply the company with coronavirus DNA samples. He has also been working with Dr. Derek So at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, who recently received approval from the Research Ethics Board to run a small clinical study that will test the COVID-19 analyzers in the field.
Originally from Toronto, Lem decided to set up shop in Ottawa because, as he puts it, it’s a great place to start a biotech company. “It’s home to a lot of really good scientists and engineers who we’re able to hire.”
Lem is a strong advocate for entrepreneurship and regularly participates in University of Ottawa panel discussions and coaching workshops to help get new start-ups on their feet.
“What’s really nice about Ottawa is that everyone gives you a helping hand,” says Lem. “At Spartan, it’s been 14 years where the community has really supported us. You’re not just another anonymous person in the crowd. I think Ottawa really gets behind its home teams and I’m really grateful for that.”
This article was updated on Monday, January 25, 2021.