The Cancer-Test Kid

After a family friend died of pancreatic cancer, high school sophomore Jack Andraka invented a diagnostic strip that could detect the disease in its early stages.

By | April 1, 2013

WHIZ KID: Jack Andraka’s tireless work in the Johns Hopkins University lab of pathologist Anirban Maitra paid off in the form of a $75,000 scholarship.COURTESY OF JACK ANDRAKAIn the spring of 2011, 15-year-old Jack Andraka had a lot on his mind. A close friend of the family, a man who was like an uncle to Andraka, had recently died of pancreatic cancer. Reading up on the disease, the then high school freshman discovered that around 85 percent of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed too late, when patients have less than a 2 percent chance of survival. The reason, Andraka learned, was that the best tools for early detection are both expensive and woefully inaccurate.

“I was like, ‘There has to be a better way than this really crappy test,’” says Andraka, currently a sophomore at North County High School in Glen Burnie, Maryland.

A typical teenager might have left it there, but Andraka dove deep into the scientific literature. He learned about a popular biomarker called mesothelin, a protein in the blood that’s overexpressed in patients with several types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer, even in the earliest stages. Andraka was also thinking about carbon nanotubes—tiny cylinders, around 1/50,000 the diameter of a human hair, with amazing mechanical and electrical properties, which he describes as “the superheroes of materials science.”

Then, while learning about antibodies in biology class, Andraka was struck with an idea. “I thought maybe if I lace mesothelin-specific antibodies into a network of carbon nanotobes I would have a network that reacts only to mesothelin [in a blood sample] and would change its electrical properties based on the amount present.” As the mesothelin proteins attach to the antibodies, the gaps between nanotubes widen, weakening the network’s conductivity—a signal detectable with a simple ohmmeter.

Andraka wrote up a detailed research proposal and e-mailed it to scientists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and the National Institutes of Health. He received a raft of rejections—and one maybe, from Anirban Maitra, a pathologist at JHU. “It was remarkable because he sent a very specific, 30-page protocol including reagents and pitfalls and everything,” says Maitra, who, after meeting (and grilling) Andraka, invited the teenager to work in his lab.

Almost every day for the next 7 months Andraka’s mom picked him up after school and drove him to JHU, where he often worked long into the evening. It was a steep learning curve, and there were tearful moments—not least when a month’s worth of cell-culture samples exploded in a centrifuge. But by January 2012 Andraka’s dedication was beginning to pay off. In a series of pilot studies, he demonstrated that his dip-coated filter paper test strips—hooked up via electrodes to a $50 ohmmeter from Home Depot—were capable of measuring mesothelin levels in the blood of transgenic mice with human pancreatic tumors, and in a limited number of human serum samples.

COURTESY OF JACK ANDRAKA“It’s important to note that this is still very much at a preliminary stage,” says Maitra. “We have to do a larger series of patient samples, and we have to prove that in human serum, where you have low levels of mesothelin in early-stage patients, you can still detect it.” Andraka is not the first to coat carbon nanotubes with antibodies. In fact, researchers have already developed similar tests for breast and prostate cancer. But Andraka’s is the first attempt to use the method to diagnose early-stage pancreatic cancer—and, if all goes according to plan, he could be the first to demonstrate that the approach is sensitive enough for such purposes.

Nevertheless, Maitra says, “it’s extremely impressive for a 15-year-old kid to come up with such a cogent idea and then to work through it in the lab with such dedication. He’s a very bright kid, but he had to work hard, and he never gave up.” Maitra also notes that this was all Andraka’s own work. “I gave him a corner of my lab, with a postdoc to supervise him—because he’s a kid, so that’s required by law—but he truly did everything on his own. This is not someone else’s project that he piggybacked on.”

Andraka’s work won him the grand prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, which comes with $75,000 in scholarships. “It was a dream come true,” says Andraka, who was cast into the national spotlight with a subsequent appearance on ABC World News Tonight. He has since delivered six TED talks, sat on a panel of luminaries at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, and attended the recent State of the Union Address as a guest of President Obama. Andraka seems to be taking his newfound fame in stride. “It can be overwhelming at times, but I’m enjoying it,” he says. “I have to balance it with being a normal high school student.”

For now, Andraka will continue to do just that. But Maitra says he’s sure his young protégé will achieve great things. “He’s a remarkable kid,” Maitra says. “Whatever he goes into, he will excel, but hopefully we can keep him in biomedical science.”

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You



Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo


May 12, 2013

This is a wonderful story and I don't mean to in any way take away from this young man's determination, but is there any evidence that finding pancreatic cancer early can alter the disease course and nearly 100% mortality?

Avatar of: NyteShayde


Posts: 1

May 12, 2013

Samantha, early detection is key in any cancer diagnosis, however, there is no guarantee of a successful treatment even then. Different strains of cancer express themselves differently as far as aggressiveness and metastasis. But the sooner you detect it, the better your chances almost every time. Pancreatic cancer, specifically, is usually found accidentally as the current testing is extremely expensive and is not included in standard testing panels. However, if they can lower the cost exponentially, increase the accuracy of the testing, and include it in a common panel run during yearly check-ups the odds of survival will increase drastically.

Hope this helps :)



Avatar of: lacko


Posts: 1

May 12, 2013

scrape you "short man", and you will also have :D

Avatar of: Bob Woolgar

Bob Woolgar

Posts: 1

May 12, 2013

Like so many other innovations regarding progress in fighting cancer, it seems to remain in Never Never Land with every "specialist" I've seen. How come we don't see better ideas come their way?

Avatar of: Andras48


Posts: 1

May 23, 2013

Folks, Jack is a bright kid (with an ego).  Mesothelin is not a good marker for pancreatic cancer, since it is also expressed in lung (mesothelioma) and ovarian cancer. Thus it's not really specific. Furthermore, it is not clear at this time what the quantitative relationship between mesothelin and stage of pancreatic cancer is, although some thinks that it is early. Now the question is...who is to be tested..early symptoms of pancreatic cancer are ambiguous. Are we all going to be tested ? How often ?  Even this may be a cheap accurate test for mesothelin, the overall utility of this test is not yet clear. The solution for the quick test using carbon nanotubes is not has been in the literature since 1997. 

So I wonder if the press and adulation that Jack has gotten may not give other kids the wrong idea about science. Science does not progress by "tricks". One has to be in it for the long haul....


Avatar of: dan0057


Posts: 2

September 27, 2013

Andras48 summed it up perfectly.  While kudos for this young man taking a pro-active interest in science, we should be wary to laud his success merely for the wonderful face value that it illustrates.  The details are important, such as the idea of Ab laced Nanotubes has been around for quite awhile.  Like everything, take it with a grain of salt.  Details and context are just as important.  Still, kudos for him.  

Avatar of: dan0057


Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from Andras48 made on May 23, 2013

September 27, 2013

Exactly, spot on. 


Avatar of: rpregean


Posts: 1

Replied to a comment from Andras48 made on May 23, 2013

September 27, 2013

Andras I don't understand the negativity. This young man is trying to foster and implement ideas that could save lives and improve medical technology. Take your disdain for his early success and motivation and channel it into more positive venues outside of Internet criticism. 

As mentioned in the article, the sensitivity for his method of testing is still preliminary. And no, the testing would not be utilized for everyone but for those in whom pancreatic cancer is suspected clinically or in those whom have a family history. There are a dozen different possible scenarios for screening. While pancreatic cancer has a poor prognosis, this is mainly due to the late stage in which it is discovered. Early detection could lead to an improved prognosis.

No nanotube technology is not new, but does any scientist for that manner expect to reinvent the wheel with every innovation? Even Newton once wrote, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." Utility of the collective body of work that is garnered by scientific experimentation in fostering new ideas is a part of the scientific process - for what other reason would we do it?

Avatar of: JenRen


Posts: 1

September 27, 2013

Amazing! What a super cool kid - dedicating himself and his intelligence towards early detection of one of the most fatal of all cancers. His parents must be so proud of him. I know I am, and would love to see more kids that are eager and driven to do good works, for their fellow human beings. I believe Jack will succeed in his quest! All the best to you Jack, I am cheering for you. sincerely, Jenny P.S. Is there a PayPal page set up, for those would like to donate towards Josh's early detection endeavor? Please let me know
Avatar of: mareeree


Posts: 1

Replied to a comment from rpregean made on September 27, 2013

September 28, 2013

Agreed, rpregean.

Avatar of: Skyhawk637


Posts: 1

September 28, 2013

His quote that he has to balance notoriety with being a "normal high-schooler" was humorous to me. Everything I've read seems to indicate he is nothing less than exceptional. I'm glad he has received recognition for his efforts. Few students his age are as achieved.

Avatar of: NukaColaQT


Posts: 1

September 28, 2013

I think this is wonderful and I wish Mr. Andraka the best of luck.  I think Andras48 has issues.  I love that his argument for the inaccuracy of testing for mesothelin was that it is also present in cases of some lung cancers and ovarian cancers so it's not an accurate test for pancreatic cancer.  I may not be the smartest person alive and maybe I'm just not getting his point, but to me, I would think this makes Mr. Andraka's breakthrough and methods even MORE awesome because they could potentially detect more than just pancreatic cancer.  That's like saying "Darn, we can't figure out a way for it to ONLY detect this type of cancer instead of these others. Shucks!".

As for the "Who gets tested?" question. Umm...that question applies to just about every medical test ever.  If it ends up being a cheap and easy test, why wouldn't you test everyone who has the slightest risk?  I don't know about you, but I'd be willing to fork out a little bit more for the peace of mind.  I'm sure many others would too.

Anyway, I don't think you have to tell the scientific community (or those that enjoy following it) to take anything with a "grain of salt".  Scientists are likely some of the most sceptical people ever.  It's just nice to have hope that someday breakthroughs (even ones that piggy-backed known science) will help to make cancer survivability barely a concern. :)  Kudos to Mr. Andraka and the people who believed in him enough to help him on his way to reaching his goals.

Avatar of: Mr. Obvious

Mr. Obvious

Posts: 1

September 28, 2013

I agree with Andras48.   What you people are forgetting, is the whole reason you came to read this story.   It's just another example is irresponsible media.

If you just read the headline of the story,'d assume that this kid has saved the world!'d be really really cool if it was true!  I'm not jealous...I don't care if a 15 yr old is smarter than me!  I came here to read about the incredible kid who found a new way to diagnose cancer on the cheap!

Instead I read about how.......he hasn't invented anything, the experiment failed, and he tried it by methods that are already being used.

Avatar of: drtaher


Posts: 1

September 28, 2013

Kudos to Jack Andraka for being on the righteous path of Science at the relatively young age of 15. It will stand him in good stead.

Avatar of: Skeptical


Posts: 1

Replied to a comment from Mr. Obvious made on September 28, 2013

September 28, 2013

I agree with Mr. Obvious and Andras. He may be a bright kid, but the news article makes it sound as though he came up with something groundbreaking, but he hasn't. This story reminds me of the one I saw a while back about 4 African girls who invented a generator that runs on urine. Nice story, but they didn't invent anything. Splitting water molecules and running an internal combustion engine on the resulting hydrogen is nothing new. It's great when young people take an interest in science, but let's not blow things out of proportion and misrepresent their achievements, OK?

Avatar of: starloght2971


Posts: 1

Replied to a comment from Samantha McCormick made on May 12, 2013

September 30, 2013

the reason why pancreatic cancer is a killer is because by the time you find out that you have it, it has already metastisises into other organs in the body, by this time the cancer is so bad that death is imminent. If it is diagnosed early, it will have less of a chance of spreading to other parts of the bodie which would lower the mortality rate by large numbers.

Avatar of: Madhu


Posts: 1

November 16, 2013

The story is very impressive and knowledgable. I am working towards something similar. However, I would request one of my questions to be answered.
You mentioned that Cancer feeds on high levels of Fructose, but fructose is the most common form of sugar present in many fresh fruits and even dried fruits. Even though canned and processed food have high content of fructose, including carbonated beverages, which I believe can still be avoided. But, when the doctors and parents always enforce children to eat fruits, how must one avoid this or any other preferred solution. 
I would be glad if you can answer this query. Thank you!

Popular Now

  1. Thousands of Mutations Accumulate in the Human Brain Over a Lifetime
  2. Two Dozen House Republicans Do an About-Face on Tuition Tax
  3. Putative Gay Genes Identified, Questioned
    The Nutshell Putative Gay Genes Identified, Questioned

    A genomic interrogation of homosexuality turns up speculative links between genetic elements and sexual orientation, but researchers say the study is too small to be significant. 

  4. Can Young Stem Cells Make Older People Stronger?