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The Weird Science Issue

Did This Teenage Brainiac Cure Cancer?

Fifteen-year-old Jack Andraka invented a tool to diagnose cancer that is 160 times faster, 100 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive than previous cancer-testing procedures. We asked him how he got so smart.

by Allison Van Siclen
Sep 14 2012, 1:16pm


Photo courtesy Jack Andraka

Earlier this year, 15-year-old Jack Andraka entered the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, submitting an invention that he hoped would help diagnose cancer. While developing his project, Jack had emailed numerous professors at the Johns Hopkins University to ask if he could use their labs as a workspace. One hundred ninety-seven of them turned him down before Dr. Anirban Maitra agreed. It’s a good thing Dr. Maitra did, too. If he hadn’t we may have never known that Jack’s creation is 160 times faster, 100 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive than previous cancer-testing procedures. Deservedly, it took first prize at Intel’s competition in May, and more important, it has the potential to revolutionize the way we diagnose and treat the disease. These days Jack—who isn’t even old enough to have a driver’s license—is continuing to make the rest of the world’s teenage population look like lazy jack-offs by furthering his research at Johns Hopkins and running marathons to fund cancer research. We asked him how he got so smart.

VICE: How did you first become interested in cancer research?  
Jack Andraka: I first got interested in pancreatic cancer when my close family friend died because of it. I found this paper called the “Compendium of Biomarkers,” which included 4,000 different biomarkers for pancreatic cancer. As I was going through it, I eventually found mesothelin on that list. You have really high levels of mesothelin if you have pancreatic, ovarian, or lung cancer, which are often fatal, but mesothelin can also be detected in these things called precursor lesions before the cancer is actually maglignant.

So your device measures mesothelin levels. How does it work?
It uses a tiny black strip of paper called filter paper dipped into a solution of carbon nanotubes. You apply one-sixth of a drop of a patient’s blood to the strip. And then you use this thing that I made, which kind of looks like an iPod, to measure the reading.

And you’re working to distribute these strips all over the world?
I want it to be available at every doctor’s office so your levels could be checked every week. I’ve already been contacted by several different companies who want to license it, and I’m also thinking about starting my own company.

Want more weird science? Check these out:

Whoa, Dude, Are We Inside a Computer Right Now?

Don’t Eat Those Carnitas

Future Dude

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