But as the cancer takes hold, the body does issue an unmistakable distress signal: an overabundance of a protein called mesothelin. The problem is that scientists haven’t yet developed a surefire way to look for this red flag in the course of a standard physical. “The first point of entry would have to be a cheap blood test done with a simple prick,” Maitra says.
That’s exactly what Andraka may have invented: A small dipstick probe that uses just a sixth of a drop of blood appears to be much more accurate than existing approaches and takes five minutes to complete. It’s still preliminary, but drug companies are interested, and word is spreading. “I’ve gotten these Facebook messages asking, ‘Can I have the test?’” Andraka says. “I am heartbroken to say no.”
That fateful day in freshman biology class last year, Andraka had a lot on his mind. A close friend of his family had recently died of pancreatic cancer, and Andraka had been reading about the disease. At the same time, he and his father, Steve, a civil engineer, had been using carbon nanotubes to screen compounds in water from the Chesapeake Bay. Andraka had frankly become a little obsessed with the nanotubes, which look to the naked eye like little piles of black dust, but are really tiny cylinders about 1/50,000 the diameter of a human hair that can form microscopic networks. “They have these amazing properties,” Andraka explains. “They are stronger than steel. They conduct electricity better than copper.”
The Science paper he was covertly reading at his desk was about applications for nanotubes. With half an ear, Andraka listened to his biology teacher lecture on antibodies, which bind to particular proteins in the blood. Suddenly, the two ideas collided in his mind. What if he could lace a nanotube network with mesothelin-specific antibodies, then introduce a drop of a pancreatic cancer patient’s blood? The antibodies would bind to the mesothelin and enlarge. These beefed-up molecules would spread the nanotubes farther apart, changing the electrical properties of the network: The more mesothelin present, the more antibodies would bind and grow big, and the weaker the electrical signal would become. Other scientists had recently designed similar tests for breast and prostate cancers, but nobody had addressed pancreatic cancer. “It’s called connecting the dots,” Maitra says.
Andraka wrote up an experimental protocol and e-mailed it to 200 researchers. Only Maitra responded. “It was a very unusual e-mail,” he remembers. “I often don’t get e-mails like this from postdoctoral fellows, let alone high-school freshmen.” He decided to invite Andraka to his lab. To oversee the project, he appointed a gentle postdoctoral chemist, who took the baby-sitting assignment in stride. They expected to see Andraka for perhaps a few weeks over the summer.
Instead, the young scientist worked for seven months, every day after school and often on Saturdays until after midnight, subsisting on hard-boiled eggs and Twix as his mother dozed in the car in a nearby parking garage. He labored through Thanksgiving and Christmas. He spent his 15th birthday in the lab.
Not having finished even freshman biology, he had a lot to learn. He called forceps “tweezers.” He had a nasty run-in with the centrifuge machine, in which a month’s worth of cell culture samples exploded, and Andraka burst into tears.