People

Jack Andraka: Boy Wonder

By Valentina Alvarez

The story of the teenager who invented the most effective cancer detection test yet.

Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old from Maryland, was sitting in a biology class when he bubbled up an idea that could revolutionize the detection of pancreatic, lung, and ovarian cancer.

Inspired by the death of a close family friend who was like an uncle to him and with nearly no prior knowledge on the subject, Andraka dug into research using what he calls “a teenager’s best friends”: Google and Wikipedia. He discovered that an astonishing 85% of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late, leaving the victims with less than a 2% chance at survival. Jack connected this problem to the sixty-year-old technique used to detect it: expensive (valued at $800 per test) and grossly inaccurate (missing 30% of cancers).

Convinced by his “teenage optimism” that there had to be a better way to do it, he investigated for months, individually reading about 4000 proteins to eventually find the correct biomarker for the disease that his sensor could detect. Then, he had his breakthrough idea in class, a place he describes as “possibly the most unlikely place for innovation”. In essence, he single-handedly designed a simplistic, inexpensive, rapid, sensitive, and selective cancer detector out of paper.

However, when he sent his research and procedure to 200 professors at John Hopkins University and the National Institute of Health, he got 199 rejections and only one weak offer to help. Eventually, after working in this professor’s lab for months, he filled all the holes in his procedure and came up with a prototype that is 68 times faster, 26,667 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive than existing technologies for detecting cancer.

The best part is that this detector is nearly 100% accurate since the very early stages of the disease. Also, the sensor could eventually be adapted to detect a number of diseases besides pancreatic, lung, and ovarian cancers.

Ever since he developed this method, Andraka has been awarded the Gordon E. Moore Award, the Smithsonian magazine’s American Ingenuity Award in the Youth Achievement category, and the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair where he received a $75,000 award. Additionally, he has had appearances on TEDx, The Colbert Show, and has been interviewed on international news channels like BBC.

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