Jack Andraka enjoys mountain biking, whitewater rafting, kayaking, and science. According to his Facebook page, he’s a fan of Beavis and Butthead, Family Guy and The Simpsons. Oh yeah—when Jack was 15-years-old he also created a new diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer that is 28 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive and over 100 times more sensitive than the current diagnostic tests. And, in case that’s not impressive enough, the test also works for ovarian and lung cancer.
His diagnostic test earned him first prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest pre-college science research competition (the photo is from the competition).
I love Jack’s modesty. Interviewed before the fair, he said, “I’m incredibly excited. It’s like the Olympics of science fairs. It’s just amazing to be here—even if I don’t get a prize.” Well, Jack Andraka did win, receiving about $100,000 in prize money ($75,000 from the grand prize and over $25,000 from other smaller prizes). The high schooler said he will put the money toward college tuition.
It was after a close family friend died of pancreatic cancer that Jack became interested in finding a better early-detection diagnostic test. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is usually detected too late to save the patient.
Jack said the solution came to him during his high school biology class. He was secretly reading an article about nanotubes while the teacher was talking about antibodies. Jack said the two ideas came together in his head, and he thought he could combine what the teacher was saying with what he knew about nanotubes to create an early detection test for Pancreatic cancer.
Jack Andraka used what he found through Google searches and free online science journals to develop a plan and a budget. Jack contacted about 200 people including researches at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health with a proposal to work in their labs. He got 199 rejections and then finally got an acceptance from Dr. Anirban Maitra, Professor of Pathology, Oncology and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. It’s at Maitra’s lab where Jack worked daily after school, on weekends and over holidays until he developed his test.
Why did a 15-year-old beat out billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies with his diagnostic test? Perhaps as a young person with no experience, he hadn’t yet learned what everyone else in the industry “knew couldn’t be done.” Certainly, it was in no small part because Anirban Maitra gave him a chance. Not to mention that Jack had an idea and went out and gave it a try.
Think about Jack Andraka the next time you hear that something can’t be done, someone asks you to help out with his project, you receive numerous rejections (close to 200 in Jack Andraka’s case) or you’re hesitating to give one of your ideas a shot. Also, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need a giant team, billions of dollars in resources or even more than 15 years of life experience to do something amazing.
The results of Jack Andraka’s diagnostic test were published on the Society for Science and the Public web site, and Jack has patented his discovery.
If you’re interested in hearing Jack Andraka talk about his pancreatic cancer diagnostic test breakthrough, the video below is Jack Andraka’s 2012 TED talk about his discovery.
This video is from an interview with Jack Andraka at the science fair.
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