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Teenage Scientist Jack Andraka Brings Hope to Patients with Pancreatic Cancer

Jun 25, 2013

In 2012, a high school sophomore named Jack Andraka made waves in the oncology community by developing an inexpensive blood test for pancreatic cancer that could detect the disease in an early stage. The test, which garnered Andraka the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, has potentially huge implications for the oncology community. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer with only a 6% five-year survival rate, according to 2010 SEER data. Early detection for pancreatic cancer is currently difficult as the cancer often produces no symptoms until advanced stages; by then, it’s usually too late to cure.

But Andraka’s test may one day give oncologists the ability to screen patients for the disease during routine physicals before the cancer has spread too far, perhaps raising the five-year survival rate to more than 50%. The test detects overexpressed mesothelin in the blood; a known marker of early-stage pancreatic cancer.

“It’s kind of like a diabetes test strip,” Andraka said in an interview with ASCO Connection. “When you put the blood sample on the strip, the protein mesothelin essentially penetrates the nanotube network and forms an immune complex with an antibody. This, in turn, forms a large immune-complex, rips apart the network, and spreads to neighboring nanotubes, thus changing the electrical properties, which I then pick up with the meter.”

The test is more than 90% accurate at detecting mesothelin levels and costs an astonishing three cents and five minutes to run.  A year after the initial discovery, Andraka, along with mentor and ASCO member Anirban Maitra, MD, formerly of Johns Hopkins University, is still hard at work on the project. Although not yet ready for prime time, Andraka hopes to have the test on the market within two to five years. (Dr. Maitra recently left Hopkins to work with a large group of scientists at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.)

“There’s still a lot of work to do. There’s a lot more science to do,” Andraka said. “For example, when I’m trying to layer the carbon nanotubes onto the paper substrate, sometimes they’re uneven, so there’s still a lot of optimization. That’s the one major issue, but it’s not that major. With this test, there’s quite a lot I don’t know since I’m still a high school student. Right now, I’ve signed some non-disclosure agreements with biotech companies. Hopefully they will be able to make the strips more quickly and uniformly so the sensor can go to clinical trials.”

But it hasn’t been all work and no play for the 16 year old. Over the last year, Andraka has been invited to give a TED Talk on his discovery, which is available on YouTube, and was invited to attend the 2013 State of the Union address. He was just named a Champion of Change, an award given by President Obama because of Andraka’s work to promote open access to scientific journals so that more students can have access to scientific knowledge. He recently spoke at TEDx House of Parliament (an independently organized TED event held in London), as well as medical schools and universities in the United Kingdom about his sensor; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education; and open access.

Networking with the next generation of researchers

“One of my greatest experiences over the past year was being able to meet other young scientists like myself from around the world and being able to discuss their scientific research with them,” he said. “We all have different international perspectives on science and scientific research, and that’s one of the best parts; being able to find a really good peer group around the world.”

Andraka has actually teamed up with a handful of these peers to enter the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition, to be judged in 2015. The goal of the XPRIZE is to create a wireless, handheld method of diagnosing disease available directly to patients independent of a health care provider. The $10 million grand prize will go to the team that develops the most accurate mobile platform, measured by diagnosing a set of 15 diseases across 30 consumers in three days. “I’m really excited to team up with a group of all teens to work on this difficult challenge,” he said. “We don’t expect to win but we know we’ll learn a lot about research and development.”

Andraka, who will be soon entering his junior year, is beginning to consider colleges and his future. Although he isn’t yet certain on a career path, clinical oncology could be an option.

“Clinical oncology definitely interests me,” he said. The fact that you can make a direct impact on people’s lives really interests me. But right now I’m only a teenager and don’t know what college I want to go to, much less what I want to do when I grow up.”

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