Jack Andraka, the Teen Prodigy of Pancreatic Cancer- page 3 | Science | Smithsonian
Only a sophomore in high school, Jack Andraka may have invented a new test for a deadly form of cancer. (Ethan Hill)

Jack Andraka, the Teen Prodigy of Pancreatic Cancer

A high school sophomore won the youth achievement Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for inventing a new method to detect a lethal cancer

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But sometimes his lack of training yielded elegant solutions. For his test strips, he decided to use simple filter paper, which is absorbent enough to soak up the necessary solution of carbon nano­tubes and mesothelin antibodies, and inexpensive. To measure the electrical change in a sample, he bought a $50 ohmmeter at Home Depot. He and his dad built the Plexiglas testing apparatus used to hold the strips as he reads the current. He swiped a pair of his mom’s sewing needles to use as electrodes.

About 2:30 a.m. one December Sunday, Jane Andraka was jolted from her parking lot stupor by an ecstatic Jack. “He opens the door,” she remembers, “and you know how your kid has this giant smile, and that shine in their eye when something went right?” The test had detected mesothelin in artificial samples. A few weeks later, it pinpointed mesothelin in the blood of mice bearing human pancreatic tumors.

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Andraka’s appetite for science and success knows no bounds: His euphoric reaction to the Intel win quickly went viral on YouTube. In the months since that triumph, reality has sunk in a little as he spoke with attorneys and licensing companies. “I just finished the patent,” he says, “and I’m going to start an LLC soon.” But Maitra—who believes that the dipstick should ultimately be modified to identify other flag-raising cancer proteins along with mesothelin—has made clear that Andraka has a lot more testing to do before publishing a peer-reviewed paper on the work, the next step. Even if all goes well, the product probably wouldn’t be marketed for a decade or so, which, to a teenager, is practically eternity.

And of course, he’s got to start working on next year’s science fair project. He has no shortage of ideas.

“He’s ahead of his time in many ways,” Maitra says. “Taking one idea and seeing how to extrapolate something even more expansive, that’s the difference between being great and being a genius. And who comes up with ideas like this at 14? It’s crazy.” Andraka is young enough to speak with perfect earnestness about “when I grow up.”

Even so, he is in high demand, giving TED talks and speaking at international ideas festivals. His iPhone contains snapshots of dignitaries ranging from Bill Clinton to Will.i.am. In September, Andraka attended high school so infrequently that a few teachers thought he’d dropped out. “But I don’t want to quit high school,” he says. “High school is fun—sometimes.” Occasionally he wishes that he had more time for it, and kid stuff in general. He likes to watch “Glee” and to compete with Luke on the national junior whitewater rafting team.

Then there’s all that homework to catch up on. His English class is busy discussing Brave New World, about a technological dystopia where the inventor Henry Ford is worshiped as a god. “Your Fordliness,” the teacher explains, is the standard honorific.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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