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Jack Andraka’s Recipe to Make a Difference in the World: YouTube, Google, Wikipedia, a Laboratory, and an Amazing Mentor

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Scientific whiz kid Jack Andraka believes that through the Internet anything is possible, and that individuals do not have to be professors to develop ideas that matter to people. “The Internet can be used to help change and solve problems in this world,” he said.

Already Jack has made a significant difference in people’s lives by discovering an early detection screening method for pancreatic cancer. He will be interviewed about his fantastic discovery from 4 to 4:50 p.m. on Nov. 2 at the 2012 ASCP Annual Meeting in Boston.

“I almost gave up. Then I would think that 100 people die from pancreatic cancer every day, I couldn’t give up.”
—Jack Andraka

His motivation for the discovery occurred when Jack was 13. He learned a close family friend had late stage pancreatic cancer. In a few short months, the man whom Jack called “Uncle” changed from a fully functioning human being into a ghost, and then he passed away. Currently, about 85 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed late, and only 2 percent survive. 

“Pancreatic cancer is a terrible disease,” said Jack, now a sophomore in high school. “His death was very hard for my family and me to accept.”

Determined to find an early screening method for the disease, Jack used the knowledge he was learning about carbon nanotubes in his eighth grade science class coupled with the wealth of information he found on YouTube, Google, and Wikipedia to develop a solution.

Jack started with a database of 8,000 bits of protein. After 4,000 tries, he found mesothelin, which is a biomarker for detecting pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer at the earliest stages when the diseases are easy to treat and patients have the highest likelihood of survival. Using a network of carbon nanotubes, which he calls “the superheroes of material science,” Jack learned about how antibodies lock onto one protein, so he incorporated antibodies and mesothelin into the carbon nanotube and experimented with changes to the electrical flow. Jack measured the changes with a $50 home electrical meter he purchased at Home Depot.

Next Jack wrote up his proposal and sent an email to 200 professors and scientists at the National Institutes of Health and John Hopkins University near his home in the metropolitan area of Baltimore. “I thought I would sit back and wait for lots of responses to my proposal,” he said.

Instead, Jack received 199 rejections in one month. However, one pathologist at Johns Hopkins, Anirban Maitra, MD, responded positively to Jack’s proposal. One of the world’s experts on pancreatic cancer, Dr. Maitra took a chance on Jack and provided him with the laboratory space and encouragement he needed for his experiments.

“He’s the best mentor ever,” Jack said. “Every time I’d make a mistake, Dr. Maitra would say, ‘Let’s look at your procedure and see what you did wrong.’ ”

Over seven months, Jack tried one test after the other. At first, he admits nothing was working. Finally, Jack methodically and patiently filled each hole in his procedures.

“I almost gave up. Then I would think that 100 people die from pancreatic cancer every day, I couldn’t give up,” he said.

Now Jack is trying to get his screening test to market as soon as he can so he can save as many lives as possible. His invention is going through the U.S. Patent Office, which could take from five to 10 years. It is also in the queue for patents in Great Britain. The process there may proceed more quickly, possibly in two years, according to Jack.

So what does he think about his future? Jack is considering becoming a pathologist or a biotech engineer and maybe will combine the two professions. Most of all, he wants to prevent diseases and is really interested in tuberculosis, lung disease, and noncommunicable and infectious diseases.

In his immediate future, Jack plans to enter the Intel contest again, which he won in 2012. He may work with a team of friends to develop a method for patients to have an instant medical diagnosis through their skin and then enter it in the Qualcomm Tricorder X contest for a prize of $10 million.

Whatever Jack decides, his future looks incredibly bright.

Related story: 15-Year-Old Scientific Whiz Kid Discusses Breakthrough Pancreatic Cancer Screening at the 2012 ASCP Annual Meeting