By Radhika Viswanathan
Earlier this year, the world of pancreatic cancer research saw an impressive advancement. A simple test strip made with paper, carbon nanotubes, and antibodies could help detect the cancer in a stage of its development in which survival is almost guaranteed. In addition, the strip costs about three cents to produce. However, the most impressive part of the invention is not the efficiency of the test strip, but the inventor of this incredible technology: 15-year-old Jack Andraka, who was a high school freshman when he created this strip. Andraka’s family friend died of pancreatic cancer in 2011 so Jack—already a self-proclaimed science geek—was interested in researching the disease. He found that pancreatic cancer detection was extremely inefficient, with a five-year survival rate of only 24.1%. The detection technique was 60 years old and $800 per test, yet it failed to detect cancer in about 30% of its users.
Andraka decided to do something about this problem. He looked to every teenager’s favorite website: Wikipedia. After months of research, he had an idea: a paper detector made of carbon nanotubes and antibodies.
Carbon nanotubes are one-atom-thick tubes that have special electric properties. Antibodies are molecules made by our bodies that only bind to specific molecules. Andraka found a protein called mesothelin that is highly present in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
He attached antibodies that would only bind the mesothelin to the carbon nanotubes. The product was made on paper, which would support the fragile nanotubes. Now, if the nanotubes were exposed to blood with high mesothelin levels—an indicator of pancreatic cancer—the nanotubes would change their electrical potential, sending a current across the piece of paper. Simply measuring the current would tell people if they were likely to have pancreatic cancer.
He emailed his procedure to 200 cancer researchers in his area, received 199 rejections, and finally obtained one lab space (sound familiar, research students?). Through his work in the lab, he edited his procedure, building the bridge from theory to reality. His final product was a simple piece of paper costing three cents and taking five minutes to test a sample of blood.
For his work, Andraka won first place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in 2013. He also won other prizes at ISEF, earning over $100,000.
In a TED talk earlier this year, Andraka said the most inspirational part of his project was that “through the Internet, anything can be possible…and you don’t have to be a professor with multiple degrees to have your ideas valued. There’s so much more to the Internet than posting duck-faced pictures. You could be changing the world.” So if a 15-year-old—who didn’t even know what a pancreas was—could find a new way to detect pancreatic cancer, just imagine what you could do.