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.

Changing Planet

,

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