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BENCH-TO-BEDSIDE: How a University of Ottawa Heart Institute device designed for heart patients will protect healthcare workers with fast efficient testing for COVID-19

Headshot of Dr. Derek So.
Dr. Derek So MD, FRCPC, FACC, MSc

In the past week, Health Canada approved the use of the Spartan Bioscience portable COVID-19 test. Dubbed the “Spartan Cube,” and described as the world’s smallest DNA analyzer, results can be had in less than an hour and don’t require the specialized expertise and equipment of a large lab. This test will offer rapid test results for front line healthcare workers, especially those in remote and indigenous communities.

This game-changing piece of innovative technology began at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

In 2012, Dr. Derek So, a staff cardiologist and clinician investigator at the Heart Institute and a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, and his colleagues, partnered with local biotechnology company Spartan BioScience, to develop the world’s first point-of-care genetic test to identify patients at risk of major complications from anti-platelet therapy following a heart procedure.

Now, eight years later, the device, which is no larger than a coffee cup can detect carriers of COVID-19 in as little as 30 minutes. This is in direct contrast to the conventional hospital lab test, which can take up to two days or even longer, for results.  Because of its portability it could also be used at airports, border crossings and doctor’s offices.

Here’s how it works: a patient’s throat or nose swab is inserted into a cartridge in the device, and the analyzer generates a result right at the bedside. Now, Dr. So and teams at the Heart Institute and The Ottawa Hospital are in the process of conducting a pilot study to examine the technology’s efficacy when applied to patients upon admission to hospital. The study, according to So, has “game-changing promise” to improve the quality of patient care and protect front-line healthcare professionals in Canada.

“Enhanced methods of testing enable rapid decision-making at the bedside; this is especially important for our cardiac patients where timely care is integral,” says So. “Evidence-based patient evaluation of this technology is going to help guide and disseminate how – and how soon – healthcare providers can begin using this technology to improve care for Canada’s cardiac and critically-ill patients.”

It is with thanks to donors who contributed to research at the Heart Institute a decade ago that we could act so quickly and, in the wake of a global coronavirus pandemic, scientists at the Heart Institute could move rapidly to validate the applications of that technology in the fight against the spread of the disease, and the protection of our front-line healthcare workers.