In order to come up with a newer, cheaper, more sensitive test for a type of cancer, I would expect that you might need a degree at the least, followed by years of immersion in your chosen field, a lucky discovery and the support of a team of researchers. But it turns out you can do it in your spare time, with no special training, in between schoolwork. All you need is access to google, a fertile, intellectual environment to support you, a recognition of a need, a bit of sticking power and a powerful motivation. This is the tale of Jack Andraka, who began his research aged 13, and at 15 came up with a potentially very cheap, non-invasive test for early stage lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancer. The test, using a dipstick-type sensor, filter paper, and a basic instrument for measuring electrical resistance, detects an increase of a protein that indicates the presence of these cancers during early stage.
Jack was feeling socially isolated from his schoolmates and spending lots of time immersed in science. To compound this, an extremely close family friend, who was like an uncle to Jack, died of pancreatic cancer. But he started off not even knowing what a pancreas was. “I just did a bunch of research because I didn’t have anything to do on that day. So I decided to look up pancreatic cancer and that was when I discovered all these statistics on it.”
Identifying a need
Jack discovered that pancreatic cancer has a very low survival rate, and that this is largely due to its late detection (85% are detected late, when the survival rate is a bleak 2%). He couldn’t believe that the only way to diagnose it was via MRI, CT or biopsy, which are expensive and invasive.
Jack started off by trying to identify a protein associated with pancreatic cancer which might be a good target for a still-theoretical detector. The one he found was mesothelin. Of 8000 proteins, it was the 4000th he looked at. (Could have been worse, I suppose.) A chance fusion of two ideas (while he was surreptitiously reading a science magazine in a biology class) was the breakthrough he needed. He was reading an article on carbon nanotubules; the teacher was talking about antibodies. For those of a scientific bent, this was when he realized that he could interweave antibodies sensitive to mesothelin into a network of very thin carbon tubules. High levels of mesothelin in a drop of blood from a pancreatic cancer patient would attach to the antibodies and change the electrical charge of the network. Eureka! Once he had a protocol he needed a proper lab. He emailed 200 professors with a plan, a budget and a timeline, and one (yes, only one) said yes. He could use laboratory facilities.
A fertile and supportive environment
Jack says that he had the kind of parents who would answer his questions by telling him to go and work it out for himself. Well, we all do that, but mostly because we don’t know how best to answer questions like “Does a rainbow have every single colour in it?”, and “How do trees grow?”. I think he is being slightly disingenuous here. His father is a civil engineer, his mother an anaesthetist, and according to her they are not a “super-athletic” family, rather they are the types who sit around a table with “a million science magazines” learning how people discovered things, and figuring out how they would do it differently. Mm.., not like my house then. And get this for maternal support: it was 2:30 a.m. after a couple of years research when Jack realized that his test was working. He says, “I just ran around screaming,” and then raced out to where his mother was sleeping in her car as she waited for him outside the lab. They cried and held each other. (Sleeping in her car to support her son playing around with chemicals at 2.30am. Now that’s impressive, and two questions occur to me. !. How many nights did she do it? and 2. Was she still safe to anaesthetize patients?). His brother won his first science prize in seventh grade (I guess that’s age 11) and at 2 patents each, their sibling rivalry shows that at least they have one typical teenage trait. But, joking aside, wouldn’t it be great if more were like them? Jack says ” I just used Google and Wikipedia. Literally you just go on Google for a couple of hours and look up cool articles and stuff.” He points out that teenagers use the internet all the time, but mostly looking on Facebook and Tumblr and clips of cats and food. He clearly finds that dull.
Jack has become something of a celebrity, has his own website and has been pictured with the Obamas. He also revealed a history of bullying, depression and self-harm which preceded his scientific research and experiments. He’s written a book entitled Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator is Changing the World, been accepted to Stanford, and is leading a team of teen scientists in a big science competition. Openly gay since he was 13, he also wants to encourage the LGBT community in the world of STEM. (Sorry about 2 acronyms in one sentence: if you don’t know, LGBT = lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. STEM = science, technology, engineering and maths). His only gay role model in science, he says, is Alan Turing. The test he invented is still going through trials, and if effective might be used in the next decade. It might be able to be tweaked to use for ovarian and lung cancer as well as pancreatic. Jack thinks it has even greater potential for more diseases. If it does work as he hopes and expects it will change the landscape of cancer detection and the rate of survival for many, many people.