This Little Silver Cube Could Be the Future of Personal DNA Testing

Medical diagnostics is about to have an ‘iPhone moment’.
August 19, 2016, 3:39pm
Paul Lem and the Spartan Cube. Image: Alexander Collier

If Apple made a personal DNA testing product, it might look something like the Spartan Cube: A minimalist, anodized aluminum box, about the size of a large coffee mug, and roughly as heavy as a small laptop. Aside from the logo of Spartan Bioscience, the Canadian company behind it, there's nothing much that tells you what it can do. But this unassuming device holds within it a bona fide revolution—at least, according to the medical doctor behind its design.

Or, if you're a cynic, it's a Pandora's box.

I recently drove out to the Ottawa suburbs to pay a visit to the offices of Paul Lem, founder and CEO of Spartan Bioscience, and his team of over 70 bright-young-things. Lem says the Spartan Cube can perform a range of diagnostics, including infectious disease and genetics tests, quicker, and more cheaply, than many other DNA testing machines.

Spartan Cube shells. Image: Martin J. Smith

Think of the Spartan Cube as a video game console—each test is a game cartridge. If you want to self-diagnose for strep throat, one of three tests it's currently capable of running, you buy the cartridge that tests for the presence of infectious streptococcus bacteria. There's no blood or saliva required. You gently scrape the inside of your mouth to collect enough cells, and then put the sample into the cartridge. The cartridge slots into the device and the processing begins. In 30 minutes, your tablet, which is wirelessly connected to the Spartan Cube, will tell you if the bacterial DNA is present or not.

However, unlike a video game cartridge, if you want to test again, you need to buy another cartridge. While they haven't announced pricing, Spartan say the test kits will be "highly affordable and determined by the different markets."

Along with the strep test, there are two other commercially available test cartridges that will run on Spartan Cube: one that can determine your genetic risk of developing Alzheimer's, and another that allows building managers to check if their ventilation system is contaminated with toxic Legionella bacteria.

Cartridges that go into the Spartan Cube. Image: Martin J. Smith

In the future, cartridges will be available to diagnose for chlamydia and other STDs, test food and water for E. coli, or determine your genetic response to drugs (called 'pharmacogenetics').

None of the Cube's medical tests are Health Canada approved yet, and so they can only be used for research purposes for the time being. And the device is currently only intended for use at doctors' offices, hospitals and pharmacies. But Lem makes no secret of his intention to eventually get the Spartan Cube into people's homes one day.

Given that Spartan already has one test that can determine your genetic risk for Alzheimer's, with the likelihood of more genetic tests like it in the future, there is the potential that uninformed patients could misinterpret results that could cause them a lot of worry. Then again, there could also be cases where a patient finally gets an accurate diagnosis due to a Spartan Cube. Information is power.

"I'm a medical doctor, so my holy grail is instant diagnosis and instant cure," explained Lem. He references pop culture to outline his future vision. "It's like the tricorder in Star Trek. It instantly diagnoses you and instantly cures you."

A rack of Spartan RX machines, including the one used to test the author. Image: Martin J. Smith

While the reality is quite removed from the dream of a Bones McCoy-style medical tricorder, we've come a long way on the diagnostics side in the last decade. Spartan is on the bleeding edge of the rapidly expanding personal genomics market, projected to be worth $25 billion by 2020, entering high-risk territory that has already taken down other high-profile biotech wannabes. What Spartan Bioscience does next could be a boon to personalized medicine, or the bane of medical professionals and policy makers. Maybe both.

This is not the first time we've been here. Others, such as 23andMe, have previously tried to market personalized DNA health tests and fallen afoul of government and consumers. (The company later got regulators' approval for its tests.) Then there was the spectacular fall from grace of Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of blood-testing startup Theranos. Promising to radically transform medical diagnostics with a range of low-cost tests that needed only a small drop of blood, her embattled company has yet to prove that its proprietary technology actually works. Theranos has been targeted by several lawsuits, while Holmes was banned from operating a lab for two years by US federal regulators.

Spartan's technology is based on polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which is a proven technique for amplifying or creating millions of copies of small strands of DNA. And it already has a product on the market that works using the same process: The Spartan RX, a much bulkier, shoebox-sized predecessor to the Cube.

I asked to try out one of the tests available on the Spartan Cube—the one that determines my genetic risk for Alzheimer's—but because that doesn't have Health Canada approval yet, my test had to be run on the Spartan RX, which is approved. The RX is a one-trick-pony, testing only for a gene variant that determines responses to a range of drugs. (The RX goes for $10,000.)

Following three separate swabs of the inside of my cheek, the sample was inserted into the RX and the processing began.

My results came back, and as expected (I've tested for this previously on a different platform), I'm a rapid metabolizer, which means that I may need a smaller dose of blood-thinning drugs such as Plavix. Having too much of the drug might cause abnormal bleeding, according to Spartan. That knowledge, spat out from a little silver box, could one day save my life.