Jack Andraka
15-Year-Old Scientific Whiz Kid Discusses Breakthrough Pancreatic Cancer Screening at the 2012 ASCP Annual Meeting

His mentor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, calls him the Thomas Edison of the 21st Century.

Fifteen-year-old Jack Andraka, grand prize winner of the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for developing a breakthrough method to detect pancreatic cancer, will be interviewed at the 2012 ASCP Annual Meeting, Oct. 31–Nov. 3, in Boston. All participants are encouraged to attend his interview, from 4 to 4:50 p.m. on Nov. 2, in the Hynes Convention Center. In the morning, Jack will also address 100 area high school students meeting with ASCP Career Ambassadors at the Exhibit Hall’s Science Connection Central.

In May, the Maryland teenager was awarded the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore Award—named for Intel’s co-founder—at Intel’s science fair for his research. He competed with 1,500 young scientists from 70 countries who were also vying for the top prize. His older brother, Luke, won $96,000 in prize money at the Intel competition two years ago.

Intel officials say Jack’s screening method is more than 90 percent accurate in detecting the presence of a protein called mesothelin, a pancreatic cancer biomarker. According to Jack, this test can also be used for early detection of other often deadly cancers such as ovarian and lung. The test is faster, less expensive, and more sensitive than current diagnostic tests.

It was the death of an uncle and an acquaintance that drove Jack’s desire to study pancreatic cancer. He was in his ninth-grade biology class studying analytical methods using carbon nanotubes when he began searching online scientific journals for more information about pancreatic cancer. Jack discovered that the lack of a rapid, low-cost early screening method contributed to the poor survival rate among individuals with pancreatic cancer.

In his quest to find a way to prevent the growth of cancer, he sought a mentor and a laboratory in which he could work. After presenting a proposal to 200 professors at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., seeking their assistance, Jack received an enthusiastic response from Anirban Maitra, MD, Professor of Pathology and Oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a top researcher in pancreatic cancer.

Working with Dr. Maitra, Jack created a dip-stick paper sensor that tests the level of mesothelin in blood or urine. The diagnostic test is filter paper, dipped in carbon nanotubes to which a specific antibody is applied so that it binds with the target protein. The protein, when it comes in contact with the antibodies, binds itself to the tubes and causes them to separate slightly, changing the electrical conductivity of the nanotubes. After presenting his findings at the Intel competition, Jack continues to refine the test while awaiting a patent for his discovery.

During an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Dr. Maitra described the young scientist as the Thomas Edison of this era. He predicted Jack would go on to make more significant contributions to science in the future.

Jack’s predisposition to science began early in life. His father, Steve Andraka, is a civil engineer, and his mother, Jane Andraka, is an anesthetist. Jack was three years old when his parents introduced him and his older brother to science through a six-foot-long plastic model river, complete with running water. The boys tossed a variety of objects in the water to see which ones sank and which obstructed the flow of water. Rather than explaining why that happened, the parents encouraged their sons to find the answers on their own. And so began Jack’s love of scientific inquiry. 

Jack Andraka