Photograph by Ethan Hill, Redux
Inventor Jack Andraka, of Crownsville, Maryland, is not your typical teenager. Two years ago, at the age of 15, he invented a new, potentially lifesaving tool for detecting pancreatic, lung, 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 stages when there is higher likelihood of a cure. The test costs three cents and takes five minutes to run. Based on promising preliminary results, Andraka calculates his sensor is 90 percent accurate, 168 times faster, 26,000 times cheaper, and 400 times more sensitive than current pancreatic, lung, and ovarian cancer-detecting methods. He holds an international patent on the device and hopes to bring it to market within ten years. He believes the same detection method could be applied to virtually any disease. Andraka won the grand prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He advocates for open access to federally funded scientific research.
Where were you born?
Where do you currently live?
How did you get started in your field of work?
When a close family friend passed away from pancreatic cancer I wanted to find a way to detect the cancer earlier, when a person could have a better chance of surviving. The fact that a hundred people die every day from the disease motivates me to not only work on my project but also raise awareness of the need for more funding for research and for open access so more people can learn and innovate.
What has been your most rewarding or memorable experience in your field?
The most memorable moment was when I finally succeeded in creating a paper sensor that can detect mesothelin, a protein thought to be overexpressed in pancreatic cancer. The most challenging experience was learning the lab techniques needed to do my research! I destroyed many cells along the way!
What's a normal work day like for you?
After school I go to the lab and work on my projects. I do my homework during downtime there or if I'm traveling I do it on the plane and send it in by email. I've learned to balance school, working on my experiments, and having a bit of a social life with speaking about the importance of pancreatic cancer research.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to embrace the failures along the way and think of them as learning opportunities risk takers have to go through to reach success.
What advice do you have for people who want to make a difference like you have?
If I could have people do one thing it would be to believe in the power of citizen scientists to innovate solutions to problems in their health and environment.
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In Their Words
I think innovation often stems from a willingness to take risks that can lead to discoveries. I hope mine will improve cancer detection and save as many lives as possible.
60 Minutes features Andraka and his early cancer detection test.
Andraka argues that open access to information is essential for innovation to flourish.
Andraka speaks at TEDxYouth in San Diego in 2013.
A simple three-cent blood test strip detects the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
Visit Andraka's website and learn more about his work.
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