By Kasey Dallman
Jack Andraka has been wowing the scientific community since winning the 2012 Intel Science Fair for his new pancreatic cancer detection dipstick. Amazing Kids! talked with Jack about everything from his research to what is next for him!
AK: What inspired you to want to research ways to detect pancreatic cancer?
JK: When I was 14 a close family friend, who was like an uncle to me, died from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was! I turned to every teens’ source of information (Google and Wikipedia) to learn more about the pancreas and pancreatic cancer. What I learned shocked me. Pancreatic cancer has few symptoms and is usually found late, when there is a small chance of survival. The main blood test for pancreatic cancer (ELISA) is a 60 year old test which is quite expensive and not super accurate. Doctors don’t use it unless they are very suspicious. I knew there had to be a better way!
AK: What was the process of getting John Hopkins to support your research? Did you have any mentors?
JK: After I spent the summer refining my experimental design I contacted over 200 professors in the area who did pancreatic research to show them my experiment and to ask for permission t work in their labs. Then I sat back waiting for the acceptances to come in. And waited. And waited! I received over 199 rejections and one ‘maybe’ from Dr Maitra at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He receives dozens of emails a day and is very busy, but he took the time to listen to me and gave me a chance to work in his lab under the supervision of a post doc named Dr Chenna.
AK: Did you face any challenges while working on your research or while trying to find a place to conduct your research in?
JK: Of course there were many challenges to overcome. I had some lab experience culturing cells, but I needed to learn how to use lab equipment like the centrifuge. I spent weeks growing my cell culture, and then used the wrong size tube in the centrifuge and broke the glass tube. I got to clean everything up and start all over again. The Western Blot was also really tricky and difficult to learn. But I worked every day after school, on weekends when someone could come into the lab, over all my holidays, on my birthday, and I finally got strips that worked!
AK: What is the most rewarding part about inventing the new diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer?
JK: There were many rewarding parts of creating this new diagnostic sensor. First, I had an idea and was able to show that it worked after a lot of hard work and perseverance. Then I was able to work in a lab with amazing professionals all dedicated to detecting a curing cancer. I’ve been able to meet people and their families who are fighting ovarian and pancreatic cancer and hear their stories. And of course I’ve been able to meet President Obama and Mr. Clinton, astronauts and business entrepreneurs, and learn from them.
AK: Explain your new method of detecting pancreatic cancer!
JK: I mix a solution of single walled carbon nanotubes with an antibody to mesothelin, a protein I learned was overexpressed in pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancers. I then dip coated small strips of filter paper into this solution and let it dry. When mesothelin was applied to the strip, the change in electrical resistance was measured using an ohm meter.
AK: What was your reaction when you were the grand prize winner at the 2012 Intel Science Fair?
JK: It was my dream to go to ISEF. My brother went twice, and I came to visit him and see the projects. I was so inspired by the work I saw that I wanted to work hard and attend as well. Just to be able to go was such an honor, and then when I won and I was standing on stage with the confetti falling all around me – well it was a dream come true
(as I’m sure you can see from the YouTube videos!)
AK: What advice do you have for other kids who want to make an impact on the world?
JK: I tell kids “If I can create a sensor to detect cancer using Google, imagine what you can do!”
AK: What’s next for you?!
JK: I haven’t been able to go to school much this year because I am travelling and speaking. and I’m in the lab a lot. But I keep up online and turn in my homework and do the tests when I get back to school.
I’ve been working on my next science fair project and working with my team Generation z. We are a group of teen scientists working on the Quallcom Tricorder X prize to make a sensor like in Star Trek to detect diseases without blood samples.
AK: Anything else you would like to add?
JK: Dream big and then make it happen! Kids have fearlessness and creativity and time so think about the change you would like to see in the world and make it come true.