Teenage breakthrough

By | Science & Technology
After winning first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his patent-pending pancreatic cancer detector, Jack Andraka has teamed up with other high school scientists to compete in the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize. Credit@Intel Free Press

As a 15-year-old sophomore at North County High School, Maryland, US, Jack Andraka may be far from an average young man. Having invented an effective prototype cancer diagnostic test for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers, Jack’s innovative proactiveness has brought him to the forefront. Now, an internationally renowned teenage scientist, Jack aims to visit the UK for four days, starting May 21st, to promote his memoir Breakthrough: how one teen innovator is changing the world.

When a treasured family friend passed away from pancreatic cancer a few years ago, Andraka (now 18-years-old) decided to help scientists treat the condition. Since then, Jack has developed a prototype diagnostic test that might be capable of diagnosing the condition earlier than current practices.

Jack’s discovery won him international acclaim and significant attention from the scientific community. He has also been decorated with a number of awards including the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award where they revered him as “The Teen Prodigy Of Pancreatic Cancer”, first place in the Siemens ‘We Can Change the World’ Challenge, a National Geographic Explorer grant, the Intel Gordon Moore Award, and the Stockholm Water Prize. US President Barack Obama reportedly said, “Spectacular stuff … What Jack is doing is better than what I was doing in high school, I promise you,” and he was Michelle Obama’s guest during the 2013 State of the Union Address. His Intel award resulted in a shower of media appearances on 60 Minutes, where it was claimed the test “might save countless lives.”

Jack Andraka's memoir is more than about science, it's about finding the strength to persevere and pursue dreams in the face of resistance. Credit@Molly Slight

Jack Andraka’s memoir is more than about science, it’s about finding the strength to persevere and pursue dreams in the face of resistance. Credit@Molly Slight

Essentially, Andraka produced the device by dipping filter paper into a solution of carbon nanotubes coated in antibodies for a specific protein – mesothelin – that has been shown to be elevated in patients with pancreatic cancer. He proved that the device might detect mesothelin in cell cultures. The test was also capable of distinguishing between mice with human tumours grafted onto them and those without.

Jack has given a number of ‘TED talks’, the most famous of which is featured below and has attracted more than 1 million views on the TED website.

All of Jack’s events are open to the public and take place at: Dulwich Library (21st May), Hay Festival (22nd May), Waterstones Piccadilly (23rd May) and Gay’s the Word (24th May).

In Breakthrough, Jack writes candidly about the challenges surrounding his success and school life, such as the homophobic discrimination he faced as a young teenager. He also talks about the passing of a close family friend when he was 13 and how it encouraged him on his quest to improve cancer diagnostics.

Jack at the DC National Pride parade last year. Credit@Tim Evanson

Jack at the DC National Pride parade last year. Credit@Tim Evanson

Andraka’s work remains to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and currently requires more to prove its claims, such as tests on human beings. It is likely this might someday appear in a journal and is a remarkable achievement for a high school student. Jack’s efforts are an ambitious steps towards developing a new, innovative cancer diagnostic. The manuscript is compelling so far, however gaining medical approval for use in the clinic is long and challenging because tests and medicines need to be completely safe and proven. Jack reportedly said, “While promising the project really was extremely preliminary… I realise that in retrospect that it was just a high school science fair project and it was a proof of concept experiment and initially I thought that it [might] get on the market in 1-2 years however I’ve learned so much over the course of this journey and realised that it [may] in reality take a lot longer than this.”

Jack is now looking at diagnostics firms who might license and develop the test further. His work shows that science research may benefit from ambitious, intelligent, young people working on overcoming real problems and part of Jack’s memoir is about his love of science and his plans to engage more young people into science in the same way he is.

What might biotechnology companies do to productively engage younger people in science?

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