Within the past year, sixteen year old Jack Andraka’s life as changed
drastically from that of a typical high school student to that of an inventor,
scientist and cancer researcher. After a close family friend died of late
stage diagnosed pancreatic cancer, Jack began researching the disease
using Google and Wikipedia to learn as much as he could with the belief
that there must be something out there that could allow for earlier
diagnosis. The current tests used for pancreatic cancer are over 60 years old.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are not very specific to the disease. They include
fatigue, weight loss, nausea and loss of appetite, all symptoms of any
number of ailments as well as most types of cancer. Small tumors on the
pancreas are also difficult to detect with CT or
PET scans due to its location between the stomach and spine.
After three months of research, Jack came across a study identifying mesothelin
as a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. Mesothelin (MSLN) is a protein present
on normal mesothelial cells which line the internal organs and are present
throughout the entire body.
Pancreatic cancer and mesothelioma have a few things in common, both tend
to be diagnosed late stage, both are difficult to treat due to that fact
and as a result, both come with a very poor prognosis. Both are also forms
of cancer with an over expression of the protein MSLN.
It was when Jack was learning about carbon nanotubes (CNTs) in Biology
class that he had his ah-ha! Moment though. CNTs are extremely small particles
and because of their unique electrical and chemical properties, they present
very exciting opportunities for scientific research. Jack thought that
he could lace antibodies to CNTs so that they would react to MSLN.
Jack sent his proposal to 199 professors before receiving approval from
Johns Hopkins professor, Dr. Anirban Maitra. Dr. Maitra gave Jack use
of his lab to develop a filter paper test strip dipped in CNT’s
which when exposed to a blood sample, the MSLN in the blood binds with
the antibodies to form larger molecules thus changing the paper strip’s
The test is potentially 100% accurate, costs about three cents, takes about
five minutes and is over 100 times more sensitive than current tests.
It has already been tested and proven accurate in blind human trials.
Earlier diagnosis of mesothelioma holds the potential to turn the fatal
disease into a chronic one.
Pacific Meso Center is currently working to develop a breath test that will be able to detect
a person’s pre-disposition to mesothelioma from the microscopic
molecules carried in a their breath.
Jack received the Gordan E. Moore award at the Intel International Science
and Engineering Fair for his invention, earning a $75,000 prize and has
been contacted by multiple companies about potentially licensing or commercializing his idea.