Wait, Did This 15-Year-Old From Maryland Just Change Cancer Treatment?
If you’re feeling anxious about how U.S. kids lag the world in science and math, or just in a funk about politics or the mess in Europe, take in this story of a high school freshman from Crownsville, Md. who came up with a prize-winning breakthrough that could change how cancer and other fatal diseases are diagnosed and treated.
His name is Jack Andraka, and he loves science and engineering with every inch of his 15-year-old soul. Just spend a minute or so watching this video. Seriously, do it now before you read more. Nothing from the Oscars or Grammys comes close to the unabashed excitement and joy of Andraka charging up to the stage to accept his $75,000 grand prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May. This is the Olympics of youth science, with more than 1,500 entries from 70 countries competing, each of which already won their national competitions.
I first saw Andraka present his discovery at a TED worldwide talent search inNew York two weeks ago. In only three minutes he had the audience dumbfounded with the results of his work: a paper test strip that uses minute changes in conductivity to detect targeted viruses or antigens faster, cheaper and more accurately than today’s standard diagnostics. It seems too good to be true, but the panel of judges at the Intel science fair are not rubes. For a teenager he is disarmingly forthright and direct in talking about complex chemistry, but he’s also good at making it understandable to the lay person.
Andraka’s diagnostic breakthrough is a humble piece of filter paper, except that it is dipped in a solution of carbon nanotubes, which are hollow cylinders with walls the thickness of a single atom, coated with a specific antibody designed to bind with the virus or protein you’re looking for. Andraka’s key insight is that there are noticeable changes in the electrical conductivity of the nanotubes when the distances between them changes. When the antibodies on the surface of the nanotubes come in contact with a target protein, the proteins bind to the tubes and spread them apart a tiny bit. That shift in the spaces between tubes can be detected by an electrical meter. Andraka used a $50 meter from the Home Depot to do the trick but, he says, doctors can just as easily insert his test-strips into the kinds of devices used by millions of diabetics around the world
(Update: Readers have pointed out that Andraka is not the first to create a sensor of carbon nanotubes coated with antibodies. Here is a paper from 2008 by researchers at the University of Delaware who created an exceptionally sensitive sensor for cancer breast cells, and a July 2009 paper from researchers in South Korea working with prostate cancer cells.)
A nanotube sensor with a targeted antibody is extremely sensitive. In a single-blinded test of 100 patient samples, Andraka’s sensor spotted the presence of mesothelin, a protein commonly used as a bio-marker for pancreatic cancer, at a limit of 0.156 nano grams per millilitre, well below the 10 ng/mL considered a overexpression of mesothelin consistent with pancreatic cancer. It’s also 100 times more selective than existing diagnostic tests, which means no false positives or false negatives. It ignored healthy patient samples as well as those with mere pancreatitis. Compared with the 60-year-old diagnostic technique called enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (or ELISA), used in pregnancy test strips and viral checks for HIV, West Nile and hepatitis B, Andraka’s sensor is 168 times faster, 26,667 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive. It can spot the presence of the cancer-linked protein well before the cancer itself becomes invasive. This could save the lives of thousands of pancreatic cancer victims each year. The sensor costs $3 (ELISA can cost up to $800) and ten tests can be performed per strip, with each test taking five minutes. It can be used also to monitor resistance to antibiotics and follow the progression of treatment of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation.
Andraka is in the process of patenting his invention and will soon be submitting his work for publication through the American Association for Cancer Research. He’s also speaking before Congress on June 25 about the need for more funding on pancreatic cancer, which has a horrific 5.5% survival rate. He says he’s been contacted by four companies, including Quest Diagnostics, about potentially licensing or commercializing the idea. “I got a really fierce patent lawyer right after I won ISEF,” says Andraka, laughing, from his home in Maryland.
Andraka, born in 1997, is a science prodigy who has been engaged in inquiry with the material world since he was three. When he was in grade school, his father, a civil engineer, bought him and his older brother a plastic model river with running water. The boys would throw all kinds of foam boats and objects down the river and see which ones would drown and how different objects would impede the flow. His parents, he says, never really answered any of the questions they had. Go figure it out for yourself, they would say. “I got really into the scientific method of developing a hypothesis and testing it and getting a result and going back to do it again.”
The family has a wood shop in their garage with “every kind of saw you can imagine,” says Andraka, and when he became fascinated with bioluminescent bacteria he built a box to test how they would fluoresce in the presence of different stimuli. He entered his first international science competition in the sixth grade and won a silver medal and then won gold medals in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades. One early project was a safety retrofit for low-head dams, which are notorious for causing drowning accidents. Other projects included a method for detecting toxins in water using glowing bacteria and studying the effect of nano particles on other bulk particles.
Andraka is well-rounded kid. He takes a full boat of courses, a few AP classes and pre-calculus, English and Spanish II. When he’s not studying, he’s also competing in math olympics and is on the junior national whitewater rafting team and kayaks the Cheat and Youghiogheny rivers in West Virginia.
His advice for kids (and their parents) trying to figure out what to do with their creativity and imagination: “Make sure to be passionate about whatever it is you get into, because otherwise you won’t put the right amount of work into it.” Andraka was rejected by almost 200 researchers in his search for a lab to do his nanotube strip work until one scientist at Johns Hopkins gave him the space to work. “No one will be excited about your work if you’re not excited about it.”
For now Andraka is going to continue promoting his breakthrough test, which he says will “completely replace the ELISA test” within a few years. He’d like to explore how to put multiple antibodies on a single test strip to check for a variety of agents in the bloodstream. And what about the rest of high school? Andraka says “hopefully” he will finish North County High School in Glenburnie, Md., but if he does form a company to commercialize the nano-tube test strip, he will put high school on hold.