Like a lot of innovators, Jack Andraka's journey to discovery started with tragedy.
After a friend of the family — who the teenager considered an uncle — died of pancreatic cancer, Andraka started researching the disease. He found that more than 85 percent of all pancreatic cancer cases are diagnosed too late. So late, in fact, that by the time it is detected, there is less than a 2 percent chance of survival.
Andraka set out to find a better way. And at age 15, he did it, coming up with a noninvasive, quick, and extremely inexpensive test to detect the cancer. His discovery earned him the Gordon E. Moore Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair earlier this year — the award is named after Intel's retired chairman — plus $75,000 in scholarships. The award brought him magazine features and an opportunity to speak at a TEDx conference.
The teenager told the Washington Post that he first decided to look for a new detection method while sitting in his biology class at North County High School, a science and engineering high school in Glen Burnie, Md. He contacted 200 researchers looking for a mentor and a laboratory in which to conduct his work. At least 199 researchers said no. But one, Anirban Maitra at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said yes.
After months of work, and many failures along the way, Andraka came up with his solution: a paper sensor that can detect increased levels of a protein called mesothelin, which is a pancreatic cancer biomarker, when it is exposed to blood or urine. The strip costs just 3 cents and the test can be run in five minutes. He says the test can detect 100 percent of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers.
The discovery has the potential to save a lot of lives and save a lot of money in the process. The current test for pancreatic cancer, in addition to its low detection levels, costs $800 and is not covered by insurance.
Andraka is still in high school, although he tells Ed Tech magazine that he considering applying for a fellowship that would allow him to skip over the rest of high school and into college.
What's the biggest lesson he's learned through all of this? The Internet makes everything possible. It allowed him to research pancreatic cancer, contact Maitra, and spread the word about his discovery. He also gained 2,400 Facebook friends after he won the Intel prize.
Watch Jack Andraka at this fall's TEDxOrangeCoast conference below: