Jack Andraka seems like your average 16-year-old boy. He plays soccer, reads magazines, watches Glee, does some kayaking and hangs out with friends in his hometown of Crownsville in Maryland, USA. Yet, when he was only 15, he discovered a revolutionary new way of detecting pancreatic cancer.

Andraka lost a loved one to pancreatic cancer – a cancer that is difficult to detect. The National Health Service (NHS) states that, “When cancer of the pancreas first develops, it rarely causes any symptoms.” Furthermore, the NHS says that the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are shared with a variety of other illnesses, making it difficult to diagnose immediately. So when its symptoms are detected, the cancer may have advanced to a stage where treatment is hardly effective.

In order to identify it, doctors focus on the set of symptoms and investigate an individual’s family history. They also do blood tests and scan the body with highly specialised machines, but Medical News Today states that the presence of the cancer will never truly be known until doctors examine a small piece of the pancreas that they’ve surgically removed. By this time, the cancer could have spread to other parts of the body.

According to Andraka’s official website, one day in class, while reading about carbon nanotubes (minute pipe-like structures made out of carbon) and listening to his teacher talk about antibodies, he thought of a possible way to detect pancreatic cancer.

Andraka realised that if doctors could detect this cancer early enough, they might be able to treat the cancer at a stage where recovery is still possible.

He began brainstorming ideas about how pancreatic cancer can be detected and used the internet to do research about the nanotubes and their function, as well as how pancreatic cancer responds to the immune system at a cellular level. He considered a way to combine antibodies and the nanotubes, and experimented in his home to see if his theory was valid.

Andraka formulated a complete plan, including a budget and a timeline, and took a shot at the big names. He approached 200 professors at the John Hopkins University and the National Institute of Health about his plan and was rejected at every turn – except one.

Dr Anirban Maitra, a professor of pathology, oncology and chemical and biomedical engineering at John Hopkins Medical School, accepted his project and allowed Andraka to work in his lab. Andraka spent almost all of his time on the project – after school, on weekends and holidays – and created a dipstick-like test for pancreatic cancer.

When the pancreas is cancerous, it releases a chemical called mesothelin into the blood stream. This mesothelin is what scientists call a biological marker because it is only present in a specific condition (in this case, pancreatic cancer).

Smithsonian magazine, which did a full story on Andraka, explains that he used the particular antibodies that the body used against mesothelin and mixed them with the carbon nanotubes. Using an electron microscope, Andraka orientated the best layout for the nanotubes on the dipstick that was made out of filter paper. He used a method which made the paper conductive of electricity, but only because of the specific arrangement of nanotubes.

When this dipstick comes into contact with mesothelin, the antibodies react to it and increase in size. This forces the nanotubes apart and the electrical characteristics of the paper are changed. This is the test that determines whether there is mesothelin in the blood.

Officials at Intel Corporation have stated that this test is over 90% accurate. Andraka states that it also costs about $0.03 (24 cents) as opposed to the normal pancreatic cancer test which costs around $800 (R6 400). Because of its design, one dipstick can be used ten times and each test only takes about five minutes for the result. This method of detecting pancreatic cancer is 168 times faster than the conventional test. He has also said that the dipstick can be used to detect ovarian and lung cancer. Andraka is currently in talks with companies to provide the dipstick as a consumer-friendly, over-the-counter product.

His exploits and hard work have not gone unnoticed. Andraka has received the Gordon E Moore Award, among others, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and took home a total of more than R800 000.

Prof. Maitra supports Andraka and has told the Baltimore Sun, Andraka’s home state’s largest newspaper, that, “You’re going to read about him a lot in the years to come. What I tell my lab is, ‘Think of Thomas Edison and the light bulb.’ This kid is the Edison of our times. There are going to be a lot of light bulbs coming from him.”

It sometimes seems that after years of cancer research, there is very little progress made which is disheartening to the families of the people affected by the disease and also to the scientists who dedicate their lives to the task of finding a cure. Yet sometimes, someone like Andraka comes along and does something incredible. He hasn’t cured cancer, but thanks to him, we’re a bit more equipped in our battle against it.

Photo: staff photographer

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