15-year-old Science Buff Invents Pancreatic Cancer Test With 100% Accuracy Rate for Early Detection
At the age of 15, Jack Andraka invented a medical breakthrough that could potentially save thousands of lives. It wasn’t a cure for cancer, but it was a device to detect it early—and that can make all the difference between life and death.
The impetus for Andraka’s invention was witnessing a close friend, who was practically a family member, die a painful death due to pancreatic cancer. That was what set Andraka’s mind seeking for a solution that could have saved his friend’s life.
The young inventor from Crownsville, Maryland, realized that a big part of the problem was a lack of early detection methods, as late-stage pancreatic cancer was basically a death-sentence—where just 2 percent of patients survived. Detected early, the chances of survival were very good.
Andraka began researching a way to detect the cancer early and soon learned that the latest detection method was, at the time, 60 years old.
And there were other drawbacks to it as well: the cost of testing was $800, it tended to miss the cancer 30 percent of the time, and it took five days to complete.
Now, skip ahead for a moment and compare that to what Andraka would eventually invent: he came up with a cancer-detection method that was 168 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive than the current methods. And, it was 100 percent accurate. Not bad for a 15-year-old, right?
How he managed to come up with that, however, is a story worth telling.
Amazingly, there is so much information literally right at our fingertips. “I made the discovery with a laptop, a smartphone, and some online searches,” he said via National Geographic. Google and Wikipedia were his primary research tools, Get Holistic Health reported.
Of course, it took a little genius as well.
Andraka’s first mission was to isolate a molecule as a “bio marker” of pancreatic cancer that occurred during the early stage of the disease, which, out of 8,000 possible proteins, he managed to locate on his 4,000th try. The name of the protein is mesothelin.
With a bit of luck, he stumbled on a research paper on carbon nanotubes, which are cylinders that are one-50,000th the diameter of a human hair, stronger than steel, and more conductive than copper—we’ll get back to the nanotubes later.
Then, per chance, Andraka’s school science class happened to be discussing antibodies, which are molecules that bind with one specific protein, which gave him the idea of finding an antibody that would bind with his bio marker, mesothelin.
Andraka then put all of this knowledge together and came up with an idea: to interweave mesothelin-sensitive antibodies with a network of nanotubes, which could (possibly) detect high levels of mesothelin present in blood samples from early-stage pancreatic cancer patients. It was a good theory.
This was a good place to start, but Andraka wouldn’t be able to test his idea on his kitchen counter at home. He needed a proper lab space, which posed another challenge for the hopeful scientist.
Clearly, he had the determination, for he drafted a budget, list of materials, timeline, and procedure, and sent all this to 200 researchers in a request for lab space. Stunningly, although 199 refused him, one lab director at John Hopkins School of Medicine finally said yes.
Andraka was finally on his way to creating his invention, but he still had to shore up the gaps in his procedure. He made every mistake possible in the lab, as he later stated in a TEDx talk. But with all that determination that he had, he was bound for success.
What he eventually invented was a small device—a dipstick probe with filter paper—which, when used with an instrument for measuring electrical resistance, which he bought at a hardware store, could detect cancer early and was 100 percent accurate, although it hadn’t been proven in application yet.
Andraka also believes that the same device could potentially detect any disease using similar concepts.
He currently also holds the international patent on the device.
He said, per National Geographic, “By changing the antibody, this sensor could detect biomarkers for Alzheimer’s, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other cancers.
“I couldn’t save my friend who died of pancreatic cancer, but I hope I’ve discovered something that means other families won’t have to face similar struggles.”
Several notes left by the couple cited the wife's severe ongoing medical problems, as well as concerns that they could not afford to pay for health care.