Interview with Dr. Paul Lem, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Spartan Bioscience
By: Annette Ye
Photograph courtesy of Matt Rutherford
The implementation of personalized data to determine our genetic predisposition to the effectiveness of certain drugs – the field of pharmacogenetics – is becoming a reality in clinical practice. To illustrate the significance of this, the drug Plavix (a widely prescribed blood thinner to prevent blood clots) has many side effects. About 30% of Caucasians, and more than 50% of Asians and East Indians, carry gene variants (mutations) that reduce response to the drug. Currently, however, it can take days for doctors to determine if a patient has the right genetic makeup to respond well to Plavix. The genetic testing has to be done in a large laboratory, and is very time consuming.
But a new testing device is reducing that time to less than 60 minutes, helping to ensure that patients are treated correctly.
Ottawa-based company Spartan Bioscience, launched in 2006, is the premier maker of a device that quickly tests a cheek swab for genetic markers that provide information to guide a doctor’s decisions on how to treat a patient. Its current product tests for a genetic variant of CYP2C19, a protein found in the endoplasmic reticulum of cells that helps metabolize up to 15% of all prescribed drugs, including Plavix. Up to 1 in 3 people carry CYP2C19 mutations that can impair drug metabolism. The first use of the device will help cardiologists pinpoint which heart patients in a hospital should be given Plavix and which patients should be treated with more expensive alternative drugs. To see the device in action, visit http://youtu.be/MwLs_eMyBvs.
I sat down with Paul Lem, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Spartan Bioscience to chat about his company and himself. Lem’s enthusiasm immediately took hold of the conversation as we dove into an intriguing discussion about his career, his present biotechnology company, and his future ambitions.
A Toronto-native, Lem studied Human Biology at the University of Toronto as an undergraduate at University College. He subsequently moved to Ottawa to complete medical school. At that time he developed a keen interest in research and biotechnology. “I skipped school to go work at the lab and invent things,” Lem recalls with a laugh.
When asked what ignited his interest in biotechnology, he recounts summers of research at Harvard Medical School as well as the Stanford Genome Technology Center. Lem was inspired by the stories of research and commercialization he heard from some of the biotechnology pioneers of our time, as well as working alongside a lab participating in the Human Genome Project.
Based on research he had completed during his four years of medical school, Lem entered a business plan competition sponsored by Genesys Capital shortly after starting his residency in Medical Microbiology at the University of Toronto. His team won first prize, and soon after, Lem left Residency to chase his dream of becoming an inventor.
Spartan Bioscience is the brainchild of Lem’s first company’s technology, rebooted with integrated hardware. The current device, the Spartan RX CYP2C19 System, is about the size of a shoebox. So far, Canadian hospitals including Toronto General, St. Michael’s, Sunnybrook Health Services Center, and the University of Ottawa Heart Institute are already using the system as part of a landmark 6000-patient trial sponsored by the Mayo Clinic. More impressively, the product has been granted clearance from both the Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada for commercial marketing and sales. Lem’s product is the first near-patient DNA test for personalized medicine to be approved in Canada.
Looking to the future, the vision for Paul Lem and Spartan Bioscience is to have people use their devices in pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and even home use. The promise to make small, fast, affordable DNA tests for personalized medicine could have a large impact on medicine, health, treatment, and diagnostics, not only in the Canadian context but also worldwide. “Our Spartan RX system is like Microsoft’s Xbox game console, and the current CYP2C19 test is its first game,” Lem stated. “We’re working on more games to put on the platform.”
When I asked Lem if he had any advice for young entrepreneurs looking to chase an idea, he quickly smiled and nodded approvingly. “Invest time to get good at the business world,” he explained. “One thing that people don’t realize is how much effort and training it takes to make yourself good at business.”
As the conversation was wrapping up, I asked Lem what was most rewarding about his current work, He laughed and said, “When we’re 80 and look back onto Spartan, those will be years very well spent.”