Jack Andraka, the Teen Prodigy of Pancreatic Cancer- page 1 | 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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It’s first period digital arts class, and the assignment is to make Photoshop monsters. Sophomore Jack Andraka considers crossing a velociraptor with a Brazilian wandering spider, while another boy grafts butterfly wings onto a rhinoceros. Meanwhile, the teacher lectures on the deranged genius of Doctor Moreau and Frankenstein, “a man who created something he didn’t take responsibility for.”

“You don’t have to do this, Jack!” somebody in back shouts.

The silver glint of a retainer: Andraka grins. Since he won the $75,000 grand prize at this past spring’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, one of the few freshman ever to do so, he’s become a North County High School celebrity to rival any soccer star or homecoming queen. A series of jokes ensue about Andraka’s mad scientist doings in the school’s imaginary “dungeon” laboratory. In reality, Andraka created his potentially revolutionary pancreatic cancer detection tool at nearby Johns Hopkins University, though he does sometimes tinker in a small basement lab at the family’s house in leafy Crownsville, Maryland, where a homemade particle accelerator crowds the foosball table.

This 15-year-old “Edison of our times,” as Andraka’s Hopkins mentor has called him, wears red Nikes carefully coordinated with his Intel T-shirt. His shaggy haircut is somewhere between Beatles and Bieber. At school one day, he cites papers from leading scientific publications, including Science, Nature and the Journal of Clinical Neurology. And that’s just in English class. In chemistry, he tells the teacher that he will make up a missed lab at home, where of course he has plenty of nitric acid to work with. In calculus, he does not join the other students who cluster around a blackboard equation like hungry young lions at a kill. “That’s so trivial,” he says, and plops down at a desk to catch up on assigned chapters from Brave New World instead. Nobody stops him, perhaps because last year, when his biology teacher confiscated his clandestine reading material on carbon nanotubes, he was in the midst of the epiphany that scientists think has the potential to save lives.

After school Andraka’s mom, Jane, a hospital anesthetist, arrives in her battered red Ford Escort station wagon with a saving supply of chocolate milk. She soon learns that Jack’s big brother, Luke—a senior, and a previous finalist in the same elite science fair—has been ordered to bring his handmade arc furnace home. He built it in a school lab, but teachers grew nervous when he mentioned that the device could generate temperatures of several thousand degrees Fahrenheit, and melted a steel screw to prove it. The contraption will find a spot in the Andraka basement.

“I just say ‘Don’t burn down the house or kill yourself or your brother,’” the boys’ mother cheerfully explains. “I don’t know enough physics and math to know if that’s a death ray or not. I say use common sense, but I don’t know what they’re working on down there.”

***

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal cancers, with a five-year survival rate of 6 percent. Some 40,000 people die of it each year. The diagnosis can be devastating because it is often delivered late, after the cancer has spread. Unlike the breast or colon, the pancreas is nestled deep in the body cavity and difficult to image, and there is no telltale early symptom or lump. “By the time you bring this to a physician, it’s too late,” says Anirban Maitra, a Johns Hopkins pathologist and pancreatic cancer researcher who is Andraka’s mentor. “The drugs we have aren’t good for this disease.”

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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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