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A student revolutionizes cancer detection

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Posted 15 November 2013 - 03:38 PM

15-year-old genius revolutionizes cancer detection with 3-cent test
by Casey Baseel
Nov. 15, 20013

Jack Andraka [a Greek-American], a high school student from Maryland who just made the biggest breakthrough in pancreatic cancer detection methods in more than half a century. This is simply too cool not to share.

When Jack was 13, a close family friend of the Andrakas developed pancreatic cancer and passed away. Deeply shaken and struggling to come to grips with the loss, young Jack began learning as much as he could about the disease through online research.

What he found depressed him further still. Cancer is no joke in any of its forms, but pancreatic cancer is an especially difficult strain to treat. Detecting cancer in its earliest stages is key in beating the disease, but the traditional method for checking for pancreatic cancer hadn’t changed in over 60 years. It was slow and expensive, costing $800. Worst of all, it was woefully inaccurate, failing to properly diagnose cancer which was present roughly 30 percent of the time.

The result of these factors has been delayed detection, with pancreatic cancer often not found until it has also spread to other vital internal organs, and a survival rate of less than 2 percent. In advanced stages, the cancer is often inoperable, and even if the tumor is reduced, the chance of recurrence is high.

In Andraka’s mind, the outdated detection method was simply unacceptable, and modern science had to hold a better way. In order to detect pancreatic cancer, doctors have to spot a minute irregularity in the level of one of the over 8,000 proteins that can be measured in the bloodstream. Andraka hit upon the idea for checking for this irregularity using a piece of paper containing a carbon nanotube, a tube of carbon with a thickness of a single atom, mixed with antibodies that would react in the presence of the protein.

While his method worked in theory, Andraka would need access to more advanced lab equipment than was available in his high school biology classroom in order to perform proper testing. Filled with optimism, he drafted a research proposal and sent it to 200 institutions. The response was overwhelming, but not in a good way. In less than a month, Andraka received rejection notices from 199 of the research centers.

But just when it seemed like all hope was lost, Andraka was contacted by Johns Hopkins University, which had agreed to work with the teen innovator. Seven months later, Andraka’s new test for pancreatic cancer was complete, and the improvements it represents are astounding. Andraka’s method is 168 times faster than previous tests. It’s also amazingly affordable, costing just 3 cents. Most importantly, it’s 400 times more effective at accurately diagnosing pancreatic cancer, and may also be applicable in testing for other types of cancer and HIV, as well.

Accolades have been swift in coming for the deserving Andraka, including generous grants from Intel and other donors, which the young man unsurprisingly says he plans to spend on furthering his education. Andraka was also a recent TED Talks presenter, explaining the development and implications of his discovery as part of the organization’s ongoing series of lectures on science and innovation.

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