A HS Freshman’s Cancer Breakthrough

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016 by


Jack Andraka, the high school student who's developed a cancer test

Jack Andraka, the high school student who’s developed a cancer test

Jack Andraka was a high school freshman in 2012 when a close family friend died of pancreatic cancer. Deeply affected, he was motivated to read up on the disease and found that diagnosis is usually in a late stage when treatment is ineffective and there is a very low survival rate. Jack was shocked at the late detection and decided to develop a pancreatic cancer test.

Jack read all he could find about the disease and developed his idea. His breakthrough came one day when he was sitting in biology class, listening to his teacher talk about antibodies while he read an article about carbon nanotubes. He described nanotubes as “the superheroes of material science,” with amazing mechanical and electrical properties. He realized to screen for a certain protein, he could combine specific antibodies with specific nanotubes and based on the amount of protein present, the nanotubes would change their electrical properties.

He needed lab space to try out his ideas so he e-mailed two hundred researchers. One replied with a yes. This scientist was Dr. Anirban Maitra, a Johns Hopkins pancreatic cancer researcher who has since become Jack’s mentor. Dr. Maitra expected Jack to work for only a few weeks over the summer, but he ended up working for seven months in 2012.

Starting his experiments, Jack had little experience working in a lab and only an eighth grade science education. His research was an intense learning curve. Totally immersed into the laboratory environment, he made many mistakes, such as overheating a month’s worth of cultured cells in the centrifuge.

Jack’s lack of experience, however, gave him a fresh perspective and after seven months of labor, he had a prototype of his remarkably simple test. The design is a strip of paper coated in a carbon solution that attracts mesothelin, a protein that’s over-abundant when most types of cancer are present. A single drop of blood is needed to coat the strip and it takes five minutes to process.

Since his discovery, Jack has been internationally recognized and has won the 2014 Jefferson Award, the 2012 Intel ISEF Gordon Moore Award, the 2012 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Youth Award, and has placed first in the 2014 Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge. He has been featured on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, CNN, BBC, Fox, and in multiple documentaries such as the award winning “You Don’t Know Jack.”

Jack has secured an international patent for his technology and is hoping to market it in five or more years, considering that it cannot be marketed until it is validated by large clinical trials as well as the many legal hoops to jump through in the medical field.

Jack recently published a memoir titled “Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator is Changing the World.” He says the main idea of the book is to believe in your ideas. “I just used Google and Wikipedia to find a new way to attack pancreatic cancer. At the beginning of this I didn’t even know I had a pancreas.”


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