Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Elsewhere: Boy Wonder Creates Inexpensive and Reliable Test for Pancreatic Cancer

After losing a close family friend to pancreatic cancer, Jack Andraka, 16, learned firsthand just how deadly it can be.

That prompted the Maryland, USA teen to create a simple test to detect pancreatic cancer at its earliest stage of development, a breakthrough that could save many lives.

The gifted young scientist, who was an invited guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the president's State of the Union address in February 2013, is now working to bring his invention to market.

Last year, Jack's pancreatic cancer test won him the grand prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the largest high school science competition in the world.

He is the youngest-ever recipient of the USD$100,000 in prize money (USD$75,000 from the grand prize and over USD$25,000 from other smaller prizes), beating out more than 1,500 students from 70 countries.

Jack began working on the simple and inexpensive test soon after his close family friend died of the disease.

“I went on the Internet and I found that 85 percent of all pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late, when someone has less than a two percent chance of survival, and I was thinking, ‘That’s not right. We should be able to do something,’” Andraka said.

He also learned people with pancreatic cancer have elevated levels of a protein called mesothelin in their bloodstream, and that early detection is key to increasing the chances of surviving pancreatic cancer.

Jack said the solution came to him during his high school biology class. He was secretly reading an article about nanotubes while the teacher was talking about antibodies. Jack said the two ideas came together in his head, and he thought he could combine what the teacher was saying with what he knew about nanotubes to create an early detection test for Pancreatic cancer.

After gaining permission to work in a lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Andraka developed a simple paper sensor-incorporating a novel mesh of tiny carbon nanotubes and antibodies which can detect the mesothelin in a single drop of blood, signalling the presence of pancreatic cancer at its earliest stages.

His test has proven accurate 90 percent of the time and is 100 times more sensitive than current tests.

"One of the most important things about this is that it's found in the earliest stage of the disease when you have close to 100 percent chance of survival," Jack says. "It costs three cents per test, only five minutes to run. [The] urine or blood sample requires one-sixth of a drop."

Jack's achievement would not have been possible without Dr. Anirban Maitra, professor of Pathology and Oncology at Johns Hopkins University, and the only person out of 200 researchers to respond favourably to Jack's emails describing his project.

“I have to admit I was very surprised that this was a 15 year old writing this and I have to admit my curiosity was piqued," Maitra says. "I wanted to meet this gifted young man and see what he wanted to talk about and so I called him over for an interview. He’s very impressive.”

Maitra gave Andraka a corner of his lab, where he worked for seven months completing his project.

“I think a lot of credit also goes to his parents, who throughout his childhood immersed him and his brother in scientific magazines and encouraged them to read,” Maitra says.

Jack has patented his pancreatic cancer sensor, and is talking with companies about developing it into a simple, over-the-counter test, which could eventually provide life-saving early detection of other types of cancer as well.
- Reproduced and adapted from Voice of America, 13 February 2013.

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