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The Founding College of the University of Toronto

UC Alumnus-Led Firm Joins Fight Against COVID-19 with Portable DNA Test


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

Paul Lem
University College alumnus and Spartan Bioscience CEO Paul Lem with the Spartan Cube, which could soon be providing fast, mobile COVID-19 tests for Canadians. Photo credit: Alex Collier/Spartan Bioscience. ​

A University College alumnus is behind a biotech firm that could soon be bringing portable COVID-19 tests to airports, cruise ships and communities across the country — and ultimately around the world. 

On March 20, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government is working with Spartan Bioscience — led by CEO Paul Lem (BSc 1998 UC)— to adapt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) DNA test to its own Spartan Cube. Lem predicts the mobile, hand-held diagnostic kit, which provides test results in just 30 minutes, could be ready for this use in as few as eight weeks.

“We think it’s a game changer,” says Lem, who earned his bachelor of science in human biology 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. "Canada 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 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.

Spartan Cube
The Spartan 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 will mean adapting the CDC’s COVID-19 test to the Spartan Cube, getting emergency Health Canada approval for this use and ramping up production of what will likely be hundreds of thousands of devices across Canada. 

Spartan got closer to securing the funding it will need when Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, announced the government is leveraging its purchasing power to ensure Canadian innovations, 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.”