Editor’s Note: In 2012, 15 year old Jack Andraka from Maryland became instant news by winning first place at The Intel National Science Fair. He had developed a novel test to detect early stage pancreatic cancer and we began receiving countless calls and emails about this budding scientist in the pancreatic cancer community. Jack’s mentor, Dr. Anirban Maitra at Johns Hopkins, was a Hirshberg keynote speaker several years ago at the annual American Pancreatic Association’s meeting. Dr. Maitra’s lecture on genomics and clinical applications was brilliant and inspirational, so it was no surprise that he became a mentor to this young scientist. We asked Jack and Dr. Maitra to share their story with us and say a few words about their collaboration…
By Jack Andraka, 15 Year Old Researcher
When I was 14 years old a very close friend of our family died from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was! I began to do some research and quickly found out what a terrible disease it is and discovered that it’s often diagnosed until much too late. There had to be a better way. While I continued learning about current ways of treating cancer I was also working on the effects of nano particles on marine and freshwater organisms. I was fascinated by single walled carbon nanotubes- they’re like the superheroes of material science! I smuggled an article about nanotubes into my high school biology class and was reading it while the teacher was telling us about antibodies. Suddenly it hit me- what if I dispersed antibodies to a protein over expressed by pancreatic cancer with single walled carbon nanotubes and dipped strips of filter paper to create a sensor. When the ‘cancer protein’ was dropped onto the strip the protein would bind with the antibody and cause a change in the electrical property of the strip. I could measure this change with an ohm meter from Home Depot.
Of course there was a lot more research to do but finally I had my proposal ready. I searched the Internet for professors who did pancreatic cancer research and sent out emails to about 200 people and got 199 rejections. I got one interview and it was with Dr. Maitra! I could finally start working in the lab but at first nothing was working. I had so much to learn. I worked after school and on weekends and my school holidays and finally, after 7 months, came up with a strip that worked! Of course, I thought it could be sold in stores right away but Dr. Maitra patiently explained about all the refinements and trials that still needed to be done. Now I’m talking to several Biotech companies who have the resources for further development and to bring the test to market. If a 15 year old who didn’t even know he had a pancreas could create a sensor to detect cancer using Google and Wikipedia, imagine what you can do!
By Dr. Anirban Maitra, MBBS, Johns Hopkins
It was truly a privilege to mentor a student as committed as Jack in my laboratory. Remarkably, when we first met he was too young to drive. His mother would wait downstairs in the parking lot while Jack completed his experiments. His parents, who did such a fabulous job immersing Jack and his brother in an environment permeated with science and curiosity, deserve a great deal of credit. It’s very unusual for a 15 year old to write an introductory email that contains 30 pages of protocol, complete with supplies, catalog numbers and pitfalls! So, accepting Jack into the laboratory was a no-brainer. Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, and Jack worked very hard during the 7 months he spent in my laboratory prior to the Intel Science Fair. I truly hope Jack is able to inspire the younger generation of this country that science can be cool!”