Q&A TED Talks

The high schooler who invented a test for pancreatic cancer: A Q&A with ‘teenage optimist’ Jack Andraka

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Jack Andraka is not your typical teenager. The high schooler spends his free time in the science lab concocting better, cheaper ways to spot disease. One such project — a test for the early detection of pancreatic cancer — won Andraka first place in the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

As Andraka explains in his talk, his “teenage optimism” played a big role in this accomplishment. Jack Andraka: A promising test for pancreatic cancer ... from a teenager Jack Andraka: A promising test for pancreatic cancer ... from a teenager At age 13, after losing a close family friend to pancreatic cancer, Andraka began researching the disease to better understand what had happened. Andraka was shocked to find that 85 percent of all pancreatic cancer cases are diagnosed late, when a patient has less than a 2 percent chance of survival. Alarmed at the lack of affordable and accurate tests to detect this cancer at its earliest stages — when treatments can actually work — he pored over a list of 8,000 proteins associated with the disease, trying to find an appropriate target for a theoretical detector. On the 4,000th try, he hit on mesothelin — which is found at high levels in the bloodstream during early stages of pancreatic cancer.

Then, in a serendipitous stealth reading of an unrelated technical paper during his high school biology class, Andraka had the idea to interweave antibodies sensitive to mesothelin into a network of carbon nanotubes, incredibly thin carbon cylinders. High levels of mesothelin in a drop of blood from a pancreatic cancer patient would attach to the antibodies and change the electrical charge of the network. Essentially what Andraka was doing was eliminating the need for an invasive test, and creating one that could be done cheaply and easily.

In his charming talk, Andraka walks us through the “aha” moments that led to this big idea, and the long, winding path he traveled in order to get lab space to perfect his cancer detector — which takes five minutes to run at nearly 100% accuracy at a cost of just 3 cents. By Andraka’s calculations, this test is 168 times faster, 26,000 times cheaper and over 400 times more sensitive than ones currently available. The detector might also work for both ovarian and lung cancer and, with a different set of antibodies, could be tweaked to detect a long list of other diseases — from other cancers to malaria to AIDS.

Andraka holds the patent for this test and is looking to partner with a biotech company to bring it to market. He estimates that — if all goes well — in about 10 years it could have FDA approval and be widely available.

The TED Blog caught up with Andraka to talk about his research, his friendly sibling rivalry, and how to use the Internet for innovation. 

When someone asks you to explain your pancreatic cancer detector, especially someone who might not have a science background, how do you explain it to them?

It’s [like] a pregnancy test but for cancer. And potentially, it can detect nearly any disease. That’s kind of like my shorthand description of it — it’s like a diabetes test, a skin prick, for cancer. You draw a drop of blood and put it onto the sensor, and it would actually be the exact same set up for measuring their electrical conductivity. So, essentially you could just modify the antibodies and be able to detect pancreatic cancer.

[Clarification: Andraka added later that the diabetes test is an analogy, and that his detector works very differently in principle.]

In your TED Talent Search talk, you mentioned you were reading a paper on carbon nanotubes in your biology class when you first came up with the detector idea — and that it was something you were reading on the sly. What paper was it?

The name of the paper was “Carbon Nanotubes—The Route Toward Applications” and essentially I had stumbled across it when I was fooling around on Google. I had learned about these things called carbon nanotubes — those long thin pipes of carbon that are an atom thick and 1/50,000th the diameter of your hair. So I found this paper and thought, “Huh, that looks very cool.” I was just skimming through the top bit, so then all of a sudden I thought, “Hey! Maybe I should just bring this to biology class!” Because I got really bored in that class.

Because that’s a subject that is easy for you?

Well, I had learned a lot of the stuff in biology already and so I kind of just sat in the back of the room and read random articles during class. I wasn’t the teacher’s favorite student.

When I heard that story, I was picturing you with your biology book, but with the advanced carbon nanotube paper tucked into it like a comic book. Can you tell me about that moment?

I had already known that I had to detect this one cancer biomarker called mesothelin. That’s a protein that is normally found in your blood, but when you have pancreatic cancer you have it at very high levels — also at very early stages of the disease. And so I knew that I wanted to detect this one specific protein, and I wasn’t quite sure how. I was kind of just like trying to look up different ways of detecting proteins.

So I was reading through this article on nanotubes and on this one page it talked about their electrical properties [in a network]. [In class], we were learning about antibodies — well, the teacher was just blabbing about them in the background. I thought, “Antibodies! Those could provide some specificity so you would only target it at one protein.” But then the carbon nanotubes have this electrical property: when you separate them, essentially what happens is it increases the resistance. So then I thought maybe if I combine those two, then it could work. And then I kind of just rolled that around my brain until I finally put together the pieces of the puzzle in the right way.

So it was something in class that you heard. You were sort of just half listening, and something in the lecture floated in while you were reading.

Yeah. If [the teacher] hadn’t have been talking about antibodies, I would have completely passed that possibility over.


In your TED2013 talk, you mentioned that you had a family friend who had passed away from pancreatic cancer. At what point during that difficult experience did you decide to do research on this?

I was 13 when the close family friend passed. And so essentially what happened is I soon became interested in pancreatic cancer. I mean, because in the course of three months he had passed away. After that, I just did a bunch of research because I didn’t have anything to do on that day. So I decided to look up pancreatic cancer and that was when I discovered all these statistics on it.

Were you surprised that there weren’t any modern techniques for detecting this cancer early that was so devastating so many people?

Yeah, I was really shocked by the fact that we didn’t have any way to detect pancreatic cancer. I mean, with a lot of diseases you have one test that can detect it. Like with breast cancer you have the mammography, or with HIV/AIDS you have that screening test. But with pancreatic cancer you have to have this really invasive biopsy or you have to go through an MRI or CT scan. All those are really invasive and I couldn’t believe there wasn’t just a routine assay you couldn’t just get to see if you had pancreatic cancer.

Are such techniques common for other kinds of cancers? Is this something about cancer in general or is this something that is unique to pancreatic cancer?

Some diseases do have a standard test. However, they can only really be used in developed nations because of the inhibitive costs. But also, for a lot of the diseases, there just isn’t a test for early detection. And for a lot of different things, even gold-standard assays, they’re still very expensive and miss a lot of the cancers in the earlier stage. So that’s why this is such a crucial breakthrough.

What’s going on with the detector right now? Where is it in development, and what are the next stages that it will probably go through?

Well, currently what’s happening is that I have an international patent on it and I’m talking with several large biotech companies on licensing out the patent and getting it on the market as soon as possible and negotiating a deal with some of them. So it’s been very, very exciting. It’ll be probably be a further 10 years after that until I can get FDA approval and have it mass-produced on the market.

You’ve won some impressive awards for your science, and I’ve read that your older brother, Luke, is also accomplished in this area. Is there any friendly sibling rivalry between the two of you?

There has been sibling rivalry since I started science fairs. My brother, he was in seventh grade when he got fourth in the national science fair. Then, when I was 16, I beat him at the science fair. We’ve been battling ever since.

Is it fun, having a sibling who’s into the same thing that you’re into, and who knows the world of the science fairs like you do?

Yes, for sure. We joke around a bit. And it’s also extremely helpful because my brother — he is really good at chemistry and physics. And I’m really good at medicine and biology. So whenever I have a question about anything to do with physics and chemistry I go up and quiz him to explain those subjects to me. He’s really good at explaining stuff.

Does your brother have any patents at this point? 

He has a patent on two different things, but I also have a patent on another technology — so we’re tied in the patent race.

Is it fair to assume that your favorite subject in school is science?

Actually, my favorite subject was AP U.S. Government this year. That was a lot more fun than basic chemistry.

More fun than chemistry?

There was a lot more interesting stuff to read [in history] than just, like, sitting there and doing a bunch of practice problems [in chemistry]. Basic chemistry is actually kind of drab.

It seems like you have a really broad interest in the sciences. What are your plans for college or for your career in general? Do you want to narrow your focus to a specific field or do you want to go for a multidisciplinary program?

I actually have no clue as to where I want to go — and I have no clue as to what I want to do. I’m thinking medicine, probably, or something related to it. I can’t decide if I want to do something like public policy or go into medical practice or academia or business. Also, I like a lot of colleges. I do like a certain one out in California for its weather and its close proximity to Silicon Valley, and a lot of my friends are going there. However, I am still undecided for what college I would want to go to.

What are the next projects you want to work on?

Currently, I’m working on something called the Tricorder XPRIZE, which is sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation. That involves something the size of a smartphone that can pass through your skin and identify any disease instantly. So currently there are 300+ teams of all adults working on it, and then I have a team of all kids — all teenagers who are my friends from the science fair, and we are going for the $10 million [prize]. So it’ll be pretty exciting.

Was the team of high school students your idea, or was that part of what the foundation was looking for?

Anyone can enter the Tricorder exercise but I decided to go for all teenagers because, really, teenagers are at the epitome of scientific knowledge and creativity. Especially since we can come up with these crazy ideas but still have enough knowledge to bring them to life.

Do you think these crazy ideas that you’re talking about come from being young and not being so cautious? Perhaps because you’re starting out and it seems like anything is possible?

Yeah. Clearly we have no fear of failure and we have no clue about anything in the field. So we can’t see the impossible. We only see, “Hey, that might be cool to try out.” That’s what science really should be about instead of just doing these really interesting experiments.

Do you have an advice for other young — or old! — inventors and scientists out there?

Well, if anything, it’s something I said in my TED Talk. I just used Google and Wikipedia. Literally you just go on Google for a couple of hours and look up cool articles and stuff. Just by using the Internet in really cool and interesting ways, we can solve so many of the world’s problems and we can tap the minds of so many more innovators and have a much more collaborative spirit. So really, just use the Internet in cool ways to solve your problems.

When you say using it in cool ways to solve your problems, how are you using Google in ways that are different?

Well, the typical teenager doesn’t use Google to find scientific articles. They are typically on Tumblr, Facebooking, liking pictures a person posted of their food on Instagram. And so that’s why I am really passionate about showing them that, hey, you can be changing the world.

This piece was originally published in July of 2013. It was updated on February 4, 2015, for World Cancer Day,