Jack Andraka: 15 Year-Old Baltimore Student Develops 'Groundbreaking' Diagnostic Test for Pancreatic Cancer
His innovative diagnostic test that detects pancreatic cancer in its early stages has been called "groundbreaking" by medical science experts, but 15-year-old Jack Andraka seems to be taking all the national and international attention about his discovery in stride.
"I just think about how this test can save thousands of lives in the early detection of cancer," says Jack, a freshman at North County High School in the Baltimore area. The diagnostic method he developed is more than 90 percent accurate in detecting the presence of pancreatic cancer's biomarker protein called mesothelin, and earned him the grand prize in the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair -- the world's largest pre-college science research competition.
The test, which uses a novel paper sensor similar to that of the diabetic test strip, is faster, less expensive, and more sensitive than current diagnostic tests, Intel reports. At the Intel science fair, Jack received the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore Award – named for Intel's co-founder – after competing with 1,500 other young scientists from 70 countries. He also won other prizes in smaller individual categories for a total award of $100,500, which he will use towards college.
Jack's innovation – inspired by the death of his uncle and another acquaintance who succumbed to pancreatic cancer – is particularly noteworthy when one considers that this disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., and is extremely difficult to diagnose. By the time a diagnosis is made, the patient is not likely to survive more than twelve months.
His test costs only around three cents to conduct, takes only five minutes, and is over 400 times more sensitive than the current diagnostic tests. However, Jack, who currently has a patent pending, is quick to caution: "The most important point to remember is that this is a very preliminary study on the development of this assay for the early detection of pancreatic cancer," he says." We are still a long way from solving pancreatic cancer; there is still a lot of research to conduct not only on this assay but on a variety of factors from genetics to therapeutics."
After his uncle died of pancreatic cancer, Jack (then a ninth grader) became interested in finding a better early-detection diagnostic test. Exploring material from his biology class on analytical methods using carbon nanotubes, and searching online scientific journals, he began to formulate ideas. He discovered that the lack of a rapid, low-cost early screening method contributed to the poor survival rate among individuals with pancreatic cancer. After thinking further about the problem, he came up with a plan and a budget to put his ideas in motion.
He contacted about 200 research professionals at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health about his plan. He got 197 rejection letters and then finally got an acceptance from Dr. Anirban Maitra, Professor of Pathology, Oncology and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who became his mentor. It was at Dr. Maitra's lab where Jack developed his test.
The results of Jack's diagnostic test were published on the website of the Society for Science and the Public, and he has spoken before such organizations as the American Society of Clinical Pathologists on his findings.
Despite his new-found national and international notoriety, Jack (whose father is a civil engineer and his mother, an anesthetist) still remains a teen with regular interests. In addition to science, he enjoys mountain biking, whitewater rafting and kayaking. According to his Facebook page, he's also a fan of Glee and The Big Bang Theory.
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