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Teen prodigy rebels by developing pancreatic cancer breakthrough

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 16th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

When you were bad in school, you passed notes, whispered to your classmates, chewed gum, and if you are young enough, played on your cell phone when the teacher wasn't looking. Meanwhile, high school sophomore Jack Andraka misbehaves by inventing breakthrough tools for fighting things like pancreatic cancer.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - It's no joke. A high school sophomore has invented a cheap, swift, and effective way to detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages.

Pancreatic cancer is among the worst of diagnoses because the pancreas is situated well inside the body and any cancer there is difficult to detect. Usually when pancreatic cancer is detected, it is advanced and this makes treatment very difficult. Most victims live less than a year following diagnosis, and only a single digit percentage live for as long as five years.

However, if doctors could detect pancreatic cancer sooner, the survival rate could be much better.

It turns out that when the pancreas suffers cancer, it releases a protein known as mesothelin. However, scientists haven't developed a way to find high levels of mesothelin on a routine basis, such as during a routine physical.

Enter Jack Andraka. As a freshman, Jack was your typical teen prodigy. He was obsessed with carbon nanotubes, tiny cylinders, 1/50,000 the diameter of a human hair, that can conduct electricity better than copper.

His dad, a civil engineer, was using carbon nanotubes in his work to detect pollution in Chesapeake Bay, which piqued his interest in the unique objects.

One day during class, like any good rebel, Jack was sneakily reading a science paper at his desk as his biology teacher lectured about antibodies. His eureka moment came when he realized the nanotubes could be used to detect mesothelin proteins in the blood.

As the Smithsonian explained, "The antibodies would bind to the mesothelin and enlarge. These beefed-up molecules would spread the nanotubes farther apart, changing the electrical properties of the network: The more mesothelin present, the more antibodies would bind and grow big, and the weaker the electrical signal would become."

Jack had just invented the idea of creating a cheap test strip, similar to what diabetic patients use, to cheaply and effectively detect pancreatic cancer. Now, a test that may have cost hundreds of dollars and would invariably be performed too late, could now be done as a matter of routine, for pennies.

Jack wrote up his idea and shared it with 200 research doctors around the nation. He also entered it into a science competition sponsored by the Smithsonian.

For his work, Jack was presented with the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award, worth $75, 000. Meanwhile of the 200 researchers he wrote to, only one responded, Anirban Maitra, a John Hopkins pathologists and an expert on pancreatic cancer.

Maitra become Jack's Mentor, giving him space in his lab to work. It was a move up from a makeshift lab that Jack had in the basement of his home.
Jack is in high demand, the Smithsonian reports, to speak at TED conferences and in other forums, despite the fact he is just a sophomore now. At school, the prodigy is mostly left to his own devices in science class, permitted to work on various projects that challenge him.

It is hoped that Jack will continue to be forward thinking and develop new and unimaginable solutions to significant problems.

Meanwhile, his test strips are being perfected in the lab, after which time he will have to produce a paper for proper peer-review. If that goes well, we could see the test strips come into use in about ten years. It's a long time to wait for sure, but when they do arrive, they will save a great many lives.

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