Changing Planet

Teen Genius Develops Cancer Test

Jack Andraka at a teen summit in NYC (Credit: Benjamin Quinto)

By Donisha Dansby

Jack Andraka is not your ordinary teenager. Instead of hanging out with friends or watching TV, Andraka prefers working in a lab, looking for a new way to detect cancer.

The crazy thing is, he actually did! At just 16 Andraka has created a new tool to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages that he says is cheaper, less intrusive and better at detecting cancer than our current method. Anadraka’s test can fit in your backpack. He told us that his breakthrough hinges on a material called carbon nanotubes.

They’re these long thin pipes of carbon, they’re an atom thick and .150 the diameter of your hair. However despite this they have these incredible properties, they are kind of like the superhero material of science. For example: they are stronger than steel, they can also transfer electricity better than copper. They have all these applications. Then we have these things called antibodies; antibody is a type of molecule that only reacts to one specific protein. In this case the protein would be a cancer biomarker called mesothelin that circulates your bloodstream at very high levels when you have these different types of cancers, like pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. So you have this circulating mesothelin in your bloodstream and I want to detect that.

Essentially what I do is weave these antibodies into a network of carbon nanotubes so that you have a network that reacts with one specific protein. Due to the properties of carbon nanotubes, when the reaction happens, the network would change its electrical properties based on the amount of protein present. I would measure that change with a $50 meter I got from Home Depot and essentially I would be able to detect cancer…and potentially any disease ranging from HIV/AIDS to Alzheimer’s.

Andraka says his test improves on the original pancreatic cancer test in a number of ways.

Unlike our current pancreatic cancer test which costs $800 per test and misses 30% of all cancers, my test cost three cents, takes five minutes to run, doesn’t require specialized training and it’s a lot smaller than the current test. Here are some statistics: it is 168 times faster, over 2600 times less expensive, and over 400 times more extensive than our current standard of detection.

Andraka’s innovation has turned him into something of a celebrity. He’s won a major scientific award, given a TED Talk, and met some pretty interesting people. Andraka says one of his highlights: ”It was really cool going to the State of the Union and being able to talk to Obama. I only got to talk to him for like five minutes, but it was insanely cool to talk to the world leader of democracy about your science fair project.” During their conversation, President Obama didn’t treat Andraka like a teenager but asked him about his experience trying to get his test approved by the government regulatory agencies.

Andraka expects that his test will be used in medical centers within the next two to five years, after it receives approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

More from Youth Radio’s science desk, including past Brains and Beakers: Gamifying Air Pollution and the Science of Taste.

Youth Radio Investigates is an NSF-supported science reporting series in which young journalists collect and analyze original data with professional scientists, and then tell unexpected stories about what they discover. National Geographic News Watch partners with Youth Radio to share the work of the young journalists with the National Geographic audience. Check out more from Youth Radio’s science desk at http://www.youthradio.org/oldsite/nsf/index.shtml
  • nupur

    Its nice to see and here this tad teenage boy has created such a advantageous product 🙂 Hats Off 🙂

  • ralf

    And you get these nanotubes at 3 pence at the next lab shop?

    Get real, without his support network he is just another nerd bullied in school and encouraged by his father to play football, because he “daydreams” the whole day.

  • dragon

    Billions of dollars to cancer charities and government-financed entities, spanning decades, and this youth builds a better boat in a nanosecond. Let’s rethink where our funding goes b/c real progress is being dragged down by ego, bureaucracy , and red tape…oh, and colossal greed and misappropriation of funds. Sometimes it doesn’t take a village, but merely one motivated individual with desire and determination. This kid rocks!–and the world is a better place thanks to his focus, vision, and guileless ambition. Kudos, dude!

  • ralf

    Hi I’m about the dumbest FMer you’ve ever met HUUUURRRRRRR DUUUURRRRRR

  • Atafoh Stanley.

    This is very ,very impressive. Far more better than bombing and killing innocent people.

  • Alexander

    You know Ralf its quite interesting knowing the fate of the bullies and cool guys in School and the fate of this talent. Its very interesting seeing them in 20 years.

  • Adam Shed

    I think I’m a really high risk for death by cancer and wish this would become a home test i could check more regularly as i do my blood pressure. What are the chances?

  • Lacey Barwick

    Wow…Jack Andraka is really smart!!! I love this 🙂

  • Another Alexander

    Amusing.

  • Teresa

    Wow this is amazing and really inspirational goes to show that can you can accomplish almost anything with hard work and the importance of education
    really really cool!

  • Hawke

    wonder why nobody sells it 🙂 .. must be illegal already :p

  • DelZavala

    Here it is 6 months later and what is happening? Does the FDA have to bless this? How much money is being spent on the current testing?
    How many lives are being sacrificed?

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