From the outside, Jack Andraka looks much like any other 16 year old- long, shaggy
brown hair and wearing a retainer- but this 16 year old is no average high schooler. In 2012, Jack Andraka, at age 15, won the $75,000 Intel ISEF Gordon E Moore Award for inventing a revolutionary test strip that can detect early stage pancreatic cancer.
The painful and sudden loss of a close family friend, who was like an uncle to him, prompted him to start researching pancreatic cancer. He needed to make sense of his whole emotional struggle and loss. The family friend found out he had pancreatic cancer then passed away six months later. Why was the diagnosis made so late?
Andraka admits that his research would not be possible without the internet, and so, he resorted to Googling his way through the facts. He quickly found the startling statistics on pancreatic cancer- 5.5% of patients with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis will survive 5 years. Andraka also found that because of late detection 85% of pancreatic cancer patients will only survive 2 years. Reasons for such poor detection rates of pancreatic cancer lie largely in the lack of symptoms or that symptoms can easily be explained away as other illnesses- like abdominal pain, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, depression, and/or loss of appetite.
Devising A Plan
Andraka needed a method of early detection that was simple, inexpensive, minimally invasive, and effective. He had learned that the existing method of testing for pancreatic cancer was 60 years old, noting that this test’s age is so exorbitant that even his father is younger. Andraka also found that the current “gold standard” of pancreatic testing was cost-prohibitive, at nearly $800 per test. Not surprisingly, this test was barely ever ordered because pancreatic cancer could go easily undetected until very late stage determinations were made. Lastly, this testing method’s efficacy was quite poor, missing 30% of the diagnosis of pancreatic cancers.
The first step to creating a test for pancreatic cancer was to find a protein that is detected at higher levels in pancreatic cancer positive patients. Of the 8,000 proteins he had to choose from, he was on the verge of giving in when around the 4,000th protein, he came upon Mesothelin. Mesothelin is a protein that is over-extracted in cases of pancreatic cancer.
The next step involved testing methods for Mesothelin. As he sat in freshman Biology class, a particularly un-creative place according to Andraka, he began reading an article on carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are minuscule tubes of carbon, and Andraka posited that utilizing antibodies with these nanotubes would enable the detection of Mesothelin and ultimately, pancreatic cancer.
Realization To Reality
Andraka knew that he couldn’t get much further with his testing on his kitchen countertop or basement lab and that he needed to find real lab space. He contacted 200 researchers in an attempt to find space with their facilities. He received 199 rejections and some of them even furthered the rejection by citing weaknesses in his hypothesis and methodical flaws. He did, however, get a “maybe” from one professor at Johns Hopkins who offered him the chance to discuss and possibly win some lab space. The process of interviewing with many researchers and students was grueling and quite eye-opening but he managed to get in nonetheless.
His test, which started off using coffee filters, can take 1/6 a drop of blood to run, so it is minimally invasive. The test takes 5 minutes for processing, making it 168 times faster than conventional methods. Andraka’s test costs about $0.03 to run which is 26,000 times LESS expensive than the current “go-to” testing procedure and his sensor strip is 400 times more sensitive.
Andraka has spoken at several TED events, sharing his incredible knowledge with many people. We have one of these TED talks below for your viewing.
Andraka’s test is in the patent process and will not be available to markets for years, despite the numerous contacts he has had for supplies of his test strip. The sensor strip he has developed has limitless applications because of the way it detects proteins. There may be future tests using Andraka’s test sensor for other cancers, HIV, or for treating drug resistances.
Seeing as how Andraka is only 16 and he has the world wide web at his research savvy fingertips, most are suspect that Jack Andraka will be impacting science in many ways in the future. For now, his pancreatic cancer detection contribution will make an indelible mark on science and the practice of gastroenterology.