Jack Andraka: Boy Wonder

By: Kristine Chambers

As a 15-year-old high school freshman, Jack Andraka has recently won the grand prize of $75,000 in the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Why you ask? It is because he figured out a test for detecting early stage pancreatic cancer that is thousands of times cheaper, hundreds of times more effective than the standard test.

It uses a simple ohmmeter and paper strips and can detect early stage pancreatic cancer with only 1/6th of a drop of blood. Now Andraka is not the first person to create a sensor of carbon nanotubes coated with antibodies. Scientists from both University of Delaware and South Korea have both used this specific sensor model for other types of cancer detection. The exceptional thing about Andraka’s design however is that his invention is attached to paper and it spots presence of the pancreatic cancer biomarker mesothelinin at a limit of 0.156 ng/mL, well under the 10.00 ng/mL standard of overexpression consistent with pancreatic cancer. Although these results have huge implications for persons with early stage pancreatic cancer and will probably revolutionize the field of biomedicine, we are still years away from implicating this test in a clinical setting.

Jack Andraka showing off his research. Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons.

To focus on the prestigious award (and sizable college scholarship!) however, almost seems to belittle the incredible amount of work Andraka put into this project. At the age of 14 a close family friend to Jack died of pancreatic cancer; in the midst of his grieving he was shocked to learn that the 5 year survival rates for this disease is only 6 percent. This is in huge part because the main test for pancreatic cancer is over 60 years old, and inadequate for detecting this disease in the early stages; in most cases, by the time it is detected, the cancer has already metastecized and there are few drugs to effectively treat it. Although Jack was only vaguely aware of what a pancreas was and not even in high school, he devised a 30 page proposal of his expected protocol and sent it to 200 professors at Johns Hopkins University.  Dr. Anirban Maitra was the only one out of the group to agree to the proposal and under the required supervision of the staff, Andraka spent the next 7 months in a search for an effective protein biomarker.

There were more than 8,000 possible proteins and he had to disprove each one painstakingly. Around 4,000 he was starting to lose his sanity but then ran across the perfect protein: mesothelin. Mesothelin is a protein that is overexpressed in several different types of tumors including ovarian and pancreatic cancers. The more mesothelin there is in the sample, the more molecules bind and block the electrical signal behind it. When antibodies have the specialized mesothelian markers, they become essentially a specialized detector for pancreatic cancer.

A picture of carbon nanotubes, the microscopic superheroes in Jack’s project. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons.

Although it may seem like Jack was some kind of super-genius who does nothing but science, he is actually a pretty rounded kid with a passion for finding out the questions to his answers. He competes in the junior whitewater rafting team, kayaks the rivers of West Virginia and competes in the math Olympics. Andraka really discovered the scientific method with the help (or rather lack of) from his father a civil engineer and his mother an anaestesiologist; they never really answered any questions he had about specific problems but encouraged him and his brother Luke to figure out the answer himself. This drive to know helped him win the Intel award in 2012 and pushes him to bigger projects in the future… say a hand held device that can diagnose any disease by his senior year.