Real Voices interview: Jack Andraka
US high school student and scientist
What do you do?
I’m a high school student and the inventor of a test to detect pancreatic cancer.
How does your test work?
I’ve created a novel paper sensor made from ordinary filter paper, single-walled carbon nanotubes and an antibody to mesothelin, a protein biomarker for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers. I dipped the filter paper into a mixture of the antibody and nanotubes, let it dry, and repeated until there was a coating on the paper. I then measured the conductivity. After mesothelin was applied to the sensor, the mesothelin bonded with the antibody and pushed the nanotubes apart. This changed the conductivity and could be measured with an ohmmeter that measures electrical resistance.
Why pancreatic cancer?
When I was in middle school, a close family friend passed away from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was, so I turned to the internet to find out. The statistics I found shocked me, and I was determined to find a better way of diagnosing the disease so people could have the cancer detected earlier when they would have a better chance of survival.
What was the best part of making the test?
Working in the lab and learning from the scientists there. The process of science is the most fun part – just testing your hypothesis and seeing where it leads you.
When might the test be available?
Right now I’m in talks with biotechnology companies to get the strip made more quickly and uniformly so it can get to clinical trials. It takes a lot longer to get from ‘proof of concept’ to a finished product than I imagined!
What are you working on now?
I want to diagnose a variety of diseases easily, quickly and economically. I also want to develop my sensor to test more diseases. I’m a junior in high school so have two years before college. This year will be busy because I’m taking a lot of advanced classes, taking important exams, researching my projects, travelling and speaking.
What’s the best advice you have?
Read widely and brainstorm a lot! The best advice I’ve been given is to patent your idea before you speak about it publicly. If a 15-year-old who didn’t even know what a pancreas was can create a sensor to detect cancer using the internet, just imagine what you can do! We need to remove obstacles to learning by having open access to journal articles and scientific knowledge so kids like me can create and innovate.