Teen sensation Jack Andraka blitzes pancreatic cancer diagnosis with carbon nanotube technology

Posted on October 2, 2013


To borrow someone else’s phrase: everybody knew that science was cool, but it also pays. Jack Andraka was the 15-year-old high school student who came up with a novel idea in testing for pancreatic cancer and has now become a feted guest at big science meets, jetting in to talk about his invention at international conferences including TED and Thinking Digital.

In 2012, Jack won the Gordon E Moore prize from chip makers Intel and $75,000 in scholarship funds after his carbon nanotube test was judged ‘best in category’. The test is essentially a paper dipstick test that uses a network of carbon nanotubes (very tiny tubes of carbon only one atom thick) impregnated with an antibody that will detect the pancreatic cancer biomarker, mesothelin, in a small droplet of blood.

I spoke to Jack at this year’s Thinking Digital conference in Gateshead, north east England (video above). He was surprisingly unaffected by his success and insisted on eating some porridge before giving a great summary of the trials and tribulations he encountered prior to starting research on his test.

There is no doubting Jack’s intellect and thirst for discovery. Jack and his elder brother Luke have their own lab space at home and his internet research into materials for his test led him to carbon nanotubes before many other experienced researchers. It could be that he is simply not held back by habit, preconceptions or fear of the risks involved in using new technologies.

Jack also has a personal stake in pancreatic cancer diagnosis because his uncle died from the disease. An ELISA test used by many clinicians had not been improved upon in 60 years, despite the high death rates caused by late diagnosis.

After sending out requests to universities across the US to help him develop his test and getting 199 rejections, the 200th was the charm. Anirban Maitra, professor in oncology and pathology at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, offered Jack lab space and mentorship to help him develop his ideas. The rest is history.

But Jack aims to make history work even harder for him. He is among a team of young scientists that is competing for the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize – a $10 million competition to create a multidiagnostic tool the size of a smartphone that can detect disease by being passed across the skin. By taking part in the Nokia Biosensing X-Prize, offering $2.25 million for a similar type of device, he hopes to double his contribution to groundbreaking science.

All very futuristic and the kind of challenge that Jack seems perfectly at home with. What do you think of Jack’s story? He battled to develop his invention despite little support from his high school and rejections from many academic institutions. Do you think he is part of a wave of new scientists who don’t rely on schooling and simply look to the internet for help? I’d love to hear your views.