While on summer break in 2011 at age 15, Jack Andraka made a breakthrough in cancer detection that had eluded pharmaceutical companies and legions of PhDs.
Using information he found on Google and Wikipedia (which he calls “a teenager’s best friend”), Andraka, who lives in Anne Arundel County, came up with an idea for a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer that he says is 168 times faster, 400 times more sensitive and 26,000 times more economical than the medical standard.
Currently, to screen the blood of a patient at risk for pancreatic cancer, doctors must send vials to a lab, where it is tested for elevated levels of a biomarker. Cancer researchers and practitioners say that these tests, which are 60 years old, aren’t reliable. They often don’t show any abnormalities even when the cancer is advanced.
Andraka’s test provides an answer on the spot in five minutes with what he estimates is close to 100 percent accuracy. It involves a simple strip of filter paper dipped in a solution — carbon nanotubes laced with mesothelin antibodies — that can detect a biomarker for pancreatic cancer in a drop of blood. If the blood contains the biomarker, it changes the paper’s electrical potential, which can be measured with a $50 device called an ohmmeter.
While the test isn’t available commercially yet, Andraka is working with several companies to continue to test and refine the product in the hope that it can be sold over-the-counter in the future.
Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, said Andraka’s work is an “incredible accomplishment,” but he cautioned that it often takes years to validate diagnostic tests.
“Translating that technology into an effective clinical test to save lives is another step, and there’s a long way to go,” he said.
In 2012, Andraka was awarded the $75,000 grand prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his work. Since then, he has become a celebrity of sorts in scientific circles — and beyond. In a speech about the future of science earlier this year, President Obama offered this accolade: “Not bad for a guy who is just barely old enough to drive.” Last month, Andraka was honored by the Vatican.
When not traveling the world to give TED talks and participate in seminars, Andraka works as an unpaid intern in a Johns Hopkins University lab run by a scientist Andraka met after he won the Intel prize.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Andraka, who is now 16 and a junior at North County High School in Glen Burnie.
Tell us about your invention. How did you get the idea for the project?
When I was 13, a close family friend who was like an uncle to me passed away from the disease. . . . What I found is that 85 percent of all cancers are diagnosed late, when someone has less than a 2 percent chance of survival, and our current method of detection costs $800, misses 30 percent of all cancers and is 60 years old. So then I decided to set out to change all this.
How did you find the lab space to carry out your experiments?
I was kind of a stalker. I went online to all the directories [at area universities] and looked at all the research interests of the scientists. All the ones who were interested in pancreatic cancer I e-mailed — 200 of them. Some wrote back very mean stuff. In big red ink, like this is the worst idea ever. But one — Dr. Anirban Maitra — took a chance on me.
How did you become interested in science in the first place?
My parents. They’re awesome. Ever since I was 3, I was always asking why, why, why. And eventually they were just, like, we’re going to teach him the scientific method so he can answer his own questions. They got me doing these really rudimentary science experiments. We would take eggshells and put a book on them and see how many books the eggshells could support — so really basic, like, kid-friendly stuff, not like calculate the isoprotein of this. Eventually I kept doing science experiment after science experiment.
What is your typical day like?
When I go to school, I wake up at 5:30 a.m., go to school and then go to the lab and sometimes stay until 2:30 in the morning. When I’m not at school, I often wake up around 7 a.m. and do some work and probably am home by 10 p.m. I like the lab. On Saturdays I go to the lab, too. On Sundays it’s closed, unfortunately. I am only in high school 10 percent of the time but maintain straight A’s.
Wow, that’s a lot of driving.
Well, I don’t drive actually. I still have yet to get my learner’s permit. I have to do a two-week driver’s ed course, but I’m never home for two weeks. My mom drives me.
Did you ever consider skipping a grade (or two or more)?
I didn’t want to be that kid. I didn’t want to be that kid who is like 6 and in a college class and when everybody else goes to a party, I didn’t want to not be able to go. . . . I sometimes go to movies. I went to homecoming. I am on the National Junior Wildwater [kayak] team. I’m a normal kid. I like being a kid.
You came out to your family and friends when you were 13. Was it a hard decision?
I was really afraid of coming out as gay because there are no gay scientists. At all. It is somewhat terrifying. I was at all these science fairs and I’m like, ‘Where are the gays?’ I couldn’t see any role models. Well, there’s, like, Alan Turing [the computer scientist], but he’s dead. After I got the Intel prize, a lot of other gay teenagers messaged me on Facebook telling me how inspiring it was and so it’s been really great. . . . But I still have yet to find another gay scientist.
What do you want to do when you grow up?
I want to get my MD.
I would never do a PhD. I’m sorry, but the lab bench is not cut out for me. I don’t want to do academia. I want to work in the clinical field and do business or public advocacy.
What are you working on now?
I’m working in a nanobiotechology lab. I’m working on the [Qualcomm] Tricorder XPRIZE for $10 million. It’s to develop something the size of a smartphone that can diagnose any disease instantaneously. I have a team of all high schoolers working on this. We’re going up against 300 teams of all adults. Our team is from all over the world. We work remotely. There’s a lot of Skype-ing.