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Classroom Voices

Teen Scientist Invents Life-Saving Cancer Test

November 19, 2013

When he was 15, Jack Andraka developed an early detection test for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers. He won the top prize in the 2012 Intel Science Fair for his invention, which costs only three cents and works in five minutes, and has since been recognized around the world for his accomplishment. 

Jack wrote to NewsHour Extra about how he came up with his idea and how other students can get involved in scientific research:

When a close family friend who was like an uncle to me passed away from pancreatic cancer I was sad and confused. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was so I turned to any teen’s go-to sources: Wikipedia and Google. There I learned that 85 percent of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late, when people have a 2 percent chance of survival. The current blood test for pancreatic cancer costs $800 and misses 30 percent of cancers – reading this, I knew there had to be a better way!

Armed with teenage optimism, I began reading everything I could online about pancreatic cancer and how it is detected. One day I smuggled an interesting scientific journal article about carbon nanotubes into class. These tiny tubes fascinate me because they are smaller in diameter than a human hair yet have amazing electrical properties. Well while I was reading this article, the teacher was lecturing us about antibodies which are proteins that only react with a certain other protein. Suddenly it came to me: What if I combined what I was reading about (carbon nanotubes) with what I was supposed to be learning about (antibodies) and came up with a way to detect cancer! I planned to mix the antibody to mesothelin, a biomarker for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers, with single walled carbon nanotubes. Then I planned to dip strips of filter paper into the mixture. Then when blood or solution with mesothelin was dropped onto the strip I could measure the resulting change in the electrical properties with an Ohm meter I could borrow from my dad.

When I first came up with my idea and presented it to my parents, they were not at all supportive! They begged me to attempt a less challenging project and advised me to do a continuation of my previous year’s experiment. But once my parents saw that I was determined to concentrate on my pancreatic cancer project, they helped me however they could.

Of course that was only the beginning. I had lots more research to do to fill the gaps in my knowledge. So I spent the summer painstakingly working on my experimental design and making a budget and timeline and materials list. Then I found the names of professors in my area who were working on this cancer and started sending out emails asking for lab space. I figured my idea was so wonderful that acceptances would soon start rolling in, but I received rejection after rejection (finally totaling 199) and one maybe, from Dr. Anirban Maitra at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. After a long interview he accepted me into his lab, gave me a small budget and a very patient Ph.D. student to oversee me, and I was ready to work.

I made many mistakes that set me back on my timeline. I broke my carefully cultured cells that I had nurtured for weeks; I struggled with the centrifuge and the much detested Western Blot (a technique for detecting proteins). But after seven months of work, I was able to create a sensor the size of a diabetic test strip that could detect mesothelin.

Throughout the process, my friends had no idea why I was not available to go to the movies and hang out with them. I told them I had to work in the lab but they didn’t understand why I had to go so often. Now that I look back on it, we were all 14 so I totally get it now! After I won Intel ISEF they were so happy for me and were excited that our school received a matching grant for science equipment especially since we didn’t have enough microscopes to go around.

Through my journey I learned that with the Internet anything is possible, and that it doesn’t matter what your age, gender or race is – it’s your ideas that count. So if a 15-year-old who didn’t even know what a pancreas was can create a sensor to detect cancer using Google and Wikipedia….just imagine what you can do!

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