Pancreatic Cancer: One for the Cure

I’ve been following his career for more than a year, and he’s only 16. So I was delighted when I learned that Jack Andraka was coming to the ideacity Conference (a ZoomerMedia property), where we could meet. Jack became famous when he won the $75,000 grand prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last year for an invention that sounds too good to be true. It’s a simple blood test that uses a novel paper sensor to detect some of the deadliest, hardest-to-diagnose cancers at an early stage. Jack was inspired to look for a screen for pancreatic cancer after a family friend passed away from the disease within a week of diagnosis. He says this test would also work for ovarian and lung cancer.

It’s been a heady year since he made this discovery. “It’s just crazy the experiences I’m having and the people I’m meeting,” he told me. “So fun.” Jack was the youngest speaker at the Royal Society of Medicine; he was at the Clinton Global Initiative and he gave a Ted Talk; he’s been to the White House twice – and his many media credits include 60 Minutes, World News Tonight, Popular Science and Wired magazine. In case you’re wondering, Jack says Barack Obama has incredibly soft hands; he didn’t understand the real meaning of “charisma” until he met Clinton and actress Cameron Diaz is also very impressive. It’s enough to go to your head if you’re a sane adult, let alone a teenager who still wears a retainer and says “like” a lot.

“Luckily, I’m not that famous,” he said when I asked if he’d considered this.

He certainly has no doubts when it comes to his invention – claiming it’s 100 per cent accurate so far. It’s a dipstick-type test that uses carbon nanotubes laced with antibodies to test for a sure sign of these cancers – the overabundance of a protein called mesothelin. Tiny amounts of blood or urine are enough to run the test, which Jack says will cost about three cents and take about five minutes.

His aha moment came in biology class, when he was reading about nanotubes instead of paying attention. The teacher confiscated the article and threatened to put it in the shredder. Jack convinced her to give it back, and he went on to put together a research proposal and send it to 200 professors at different universities. One hundred and ninety-eight rejection letters came back, but Dr. Anirban Maitra of Johns Hopkins University agreed to let Jack work in his lab. Maitra told the Baltimore Sun: “This kid is the Edison of our times. There are going to be a lot of light bulbs coming from him.”

If it pans out, Jack’s test will be a breakthrough that could save thousands of lives. The pancreas lies in the back of the abdomen behind the stomach. That’s why you won’t feel anything until you’re very sick. Right now, it can take precious months to diagnose even after the symptoms start.

I remember when the vague pains began more than five years ago; my doctor put me on some pills promising: “These’ll fix you up in a few weeks.” No luck. Then we thought it was an ulcer, and he arranged a breath test for h. pylori. That took more time because in order for this test to be effective, the type of medications he’d just given me had to be out of my system for a month. When that came back negative, I had X-rays of my upper gastro-intestinal tract and, once again, they found nothing. A few weeks later, the pain was unbearable, I went to Emergency, and a CT scan revealed a stage 3 tumour. A CAT scan is an expensive, invasive procedure that involves injecting radioactive dye. It’s not something you would get without a very good reason. A cheap, painless screening tool is a tantalizing prospect.

It’s hard to work through the hype. What a story – a game-changing innovation that comes from a genius high-school student. Experts agree it shows great promise. Jack tested his strip in a petri dish, on lab mice and finally, in humans. His work will have to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It will have to pass full clinical trials before getting regulatory approval. He holds a patent on his invention and is in talks with bio-tech companies who are interested in licensing it, taking it through the approvals process and producing it. This could take up to a decade.

“Bringing this onto the market in the U.S. is a pain, like an absolute pain,” he says. “It’s 10 years of legalities until it can finally get on the market.”

Spoken like a teenager. At the outside, Jack will be 26 by that time, and I am sure he will enjoy the ride. “It’ll be exciting, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

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