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Fifteen-year-old develops method for diagnosing pancreatic cancer

An American teen develops a paper sensor that detects pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer in a John Hopkins University laboratory.

March 2014

Jack Andraka sat in a darkened lab at John Hopkins University reading through the latest revision to his procedure as the clock counted down the minutes of his 15th birthday. He had no interest in celebrating. There would be other birthdays. After all, he was on the road to developing a ground-breaking paper sensor capable of detecting pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers.

Jack enjoys challenging the traditional barriers that keep young innovators out of laboratories, but it hasn’t been easy. He originally proposed his experiment to 200 professors in the field of pancreatic cancer. In the month following his request for lab space, he received 199 rejection emails. But one man, Anirban Maitra, Professor of Pathology, Oncology, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, responded with a ‘maybe’. He granted Jack an interview, during which he called in experts to challenge the aspiring scientist on his procedure. After hearing Jack’s measured response to each question and criticism posed by the experts, Prof. Maitra decided to grant him the lab space. After seven months of sneaking in through the back door as a ‘volunteer’ to avoid child labour laws, Jack had successfully produced a working paper sensor.

Currently, over 85% of all pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late when there is only a 2% survival rate. Once diagnosed, the average lifespan is a mere three months, and only 6% of those diagnosed survive after 5 years. But the most startling statistic of all: doctors are using a 60 year-old technique to detect the disease. To Jack, who discovered all these facts online after the death of a close family friend, this was unacceptable.

The idea for a new test came to him in freshman biology class as his professor was giving a lecture on antibodies. Jack was only half-listening at the time, reading about single-wall carbon nanotubes in an issue of Science that he was hiding under his desk. Suddenly, he connected the dots. The idea was relatively simple: he would coat a network of carbon nanotubes in a layer of antibodies that target the protein mesothelin, which is highly overexpressed in patients with pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. He would then infuse a strip of highly absorbent filter paper with these nanotubes and add a drop of blood. When the blood from a cancer patient came into contact with the antibodies on the nanotube network, the binding sites would swell, spreading the network thin, and thus weakening the electrical current it conducted. The difference in current across the paper sensor could be detected simply with a $50 Ohm meter. Cancer-positive blood samples would conduct a lower electrical current than healthy blood.

In the end, Jack’s paper sensor cost 3 cents to make and took 5 minutes to run. It detected 100% of all pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers in early studies. This is compared to the outdated $800 test that fails to detect over 30% of all pancreatic cancers. Although it may take around 10 years before we see the sensor on the market, many pharmaceutical companies have already shown an interest in purchasing the technology. Jack has successfully patented the sensor and has opened his own company, Andraka Technologies, LLC for all his future endeavours.

Jack is part of a new generation of science enthusiasts who self-educate on the Internet. He searches for publications on Google, scrolls to the bottom and uses the references cited in each paper as a basis for new, more precise searches. He’s had to be resourceful to bypass paywalls and find free PDF versions of the papers he wants to download, but often the research results he’s seeking remain closed behind the walls of universities and research institutions.

The Obama administration and the National Institute of Health have decided to champion open access to the studies they’ve financed 12 months after the date of publication.

This is an important step forward for crowd-sourcing science, opening it up to ever-wider pools of human creativity so that the sharing of knowledge can accelerate innovation.