Unlike most articles on iMedicalApps, this one is less about a specific medical technological innovation and more about the innovator’s story.

Jack Andraka, the innovator, has created a near perfect screening test for pancreatic cancer and non-invasive precursor lesions. Although that is incredible, it’s probably the least interesting part of this story.

Much more interesting is the fact that Andraka developed a new technology based on antibodies and carbon nanotubes to do so. For a little perspective, Andraka completed his research when he was 15 years old.

Andraka’s interest in pancreatic cancer arose from the passing of a close family friend. Andraka noticed that pancreatic cancer took this family friend, who was like an uncle to him, from a healthy and active individual to basically a skeleton in just 3 months. Doing what many motivated patients and family members do, he turned to Google and found that pancreatic cancer is overwhelmingly diagnosed too late for effective treatment.

His curiosity took him from “Why are we so bad at this?” to “How can we do better?”

After a lot of googling and reading, Andraka finally came up with his idea in his high school biology class. In true high school student fashion, Andraka was only half paying attention in biology and reading something else under his desk.  That something else was a paper on carbon nanotubes. At the same time, his teacher was lecturing on antibodies.

Andraka knew that mesothelin was a protein that was overly expressed in pancreatic cancer. He was fascinated with the capability of carbon nanotubes to conduct electricity, and he was listening to his teacher enough to learn that antibodies bind to very specific molecules like a “lock and key.” By combining these two ideas, Andraka came up with the idea of mixing mesothelin-specific antibodies with carbon nanotubes.

The idea was that the binding of the antibodies with mesothelin would change the distance between the nanotubes. That change in distance would cause a measurable change in the electrical resistance of the antibody-laden nanotubes.

After sending 200 emails to heads of cancer research labs requesting the opportunity to research his hypothesis, he received 199 rejections. Finally, after 7 months of lab research at Johns Hopkins with pathologist and Anirban Maitra, Andraka came up with a method to put mesothelin-sensitive antibody mixed with carbon nanotubes on filter paper and to use that paper to test a patient’s blood for the cancer marker.

The test takes one sixth of a drop of blood. The strip costs 3 cents and the test takes 5 minutes. According to preliminary reports, the test 100% sensitive to pancreatic cancer and non-invasive precursor lesions, and it is 100% specific when compared to healthy patients and those with pancreatitis (the work is, as far as we can tell, unpublished at this point).

Through curiosity and dedication, Andraka was able to invent a better way to detect pancreatic cancer markers and a better way to approach antigen detection.

Andraka himself emphasizes that it was access to the internet that made this possible. When Andraka began his research, he states he didn’t even know he had a pancreas. Through Google and Wikipedia, he was able to learn enough to change the world and potentially save countless lives.

Sources: Ted (1), Ted (2)