When Jack Andraka was 14 years old, a close family friend died from pancreatic cancer. Andraka, now 19, didn’t even know what a pancreas was back then. Armed with what he describes as “teenage optimism”, he became determined to discover all he could about the disease that had taken the life of a person he regarded almost as an uncle.
Andraka, who grew up in the US state of Maryland, was shocked to discover that more than 85 per cent of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late, giving a sufferer less than a 2 per cent chance of survival. The only available test for the disease, as Andraka learned, was not only expensive, but also missed about 30 per cent of all pancreatic cancers. On top of this, the test had been developed 60 years prior to Andraka’s investigations.
“It was older than my dad,” he says. “I decided to try to find a way to detect the cancer early, when people would have a better chance of surviving it.”
And that’s exactly what he did. After going online to discover the different proteins found in the blood of those with pancreatic cancer, the young science buff spent months analysing each protein to see which ones could serve as a bio-marker for the disease. Eventually, he concluded that a protein called mesothelin was present in high levels in the bloodstream of people with pancreatic, ovarian or lung cancer.
Andraka developed a hypothesis for the disease’s detection and sent it to professors at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the National Institutes of Health. He was eventually granted a laboratory space in which to conduct his studies and, less than a year later, he developed a paper sensor test that costs about three cents, takes five minutes to run and is close to 100 per cent accurate in detecting the cancer in its earliest stages, when a person has a very high chance of survival.
Andraka, who was awarded the 2012 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Youth Award, believes interesting ideas can come when you approach a problem from several angles.
Bringing a beginner’s mind to a problem is a wonderful way to think about problems that seem insurmountable.
“I think bringing a beginner’s mind to a problem is a wonderful way to think about problems that seem insurmountable,” he says. “I think that reading widely across many fields is so important. The internet is a world-changing tool in that knowledge previously allowed to only a few per cent of the world’s population can now be accessed by millions who can use that knowledge to create new solutions and, importantly, to share those solutions and ideas with millions of others.”
Now in his second year at Stanford University in California, where he is majoring in electrical engineering and chemistry, Andraka is working across two labs to improve his sensor and to create sensors that can detect environmental contaminants.
This young innovator believes that many other teenagers want to be part of the solution to some of the world’s big problems. “The more we can encourage interest and access to science and the more we can engage diverse minds to help solve problems, the more innovations and creative solutions will emerge.”
Jack Andraka’s book, Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator Is Changing the World, is published in Australia by Scribe.