Innovation doesn’t care how old you are.
I’d like you to meet Jack Andraka. It’s a name you will be hearing a lot about–today, tomorrow and in the future. Jack is a scientist and innovator. And his work on creating a simple test for the identification of pancreatic, lung and ovarian cancer is simply amazing.
Here are some of his facts:
- -His test is 168 times faster than what is currently available.
- -It’s 26,000 times less expensive. That’s not a typo.
- -And it’s potentially almost 100% accurate.
Here’s what makes it even more astonishing:
- -Jack is 15 years old.
So, I just had to speak with Jack. I tweeted him. His reply was swift and caught me off guard. ”That would be awesome! I get off school today at 2:15.” I had been caught up in the clinical implications and had forgotten that Jack was still a student.
Jack recognized that mesothelin is a key marker for certain cancers. To create his test, Jack mixed human mesothelin-specific antibodies with carbon nanotubes and coated strips of ordinary filter paper.
What resulted was a simple “dip-stick” tool similar to what a patient with diabetes might use to measure blood sugar.
But let’s hear the story directly from him:
–How did you first get interested in science and particularly cancer?
I was interested in science at an early age because my parents would never answer my questions but always helped me to discover or find out answers for myself. So I learned how to make hypotheses and test them without knowing I was ‘doing science’!
I became interested in cancer, particularly pancreatic cancer, after my ‘uncle’, a close family friend, died due to the disease. After researching about it, I discovered that 100 people die of pancreatic cancer every day and that although early detection is key to improved survival, there are no inexpensive, rapid and sensitive tests. I figured there had to be a better way.
–Who or what encouraged you to take this challenge on?
I really enjoy challenges and particularly enjoy looking for elegant and simple solutions to seemingly complex problems. I do a lot of math competitions and my math coaches always tell us that although you can use brute force to solve a problem that looks really complex you should think about other tools and figure out a more elegant way to solve it. My math heroes can reduce a really difficult proof to a few elegant lines. So with that mindset I thought and thought about this new problem.
–Do people feel that your innovation is somehow less important because of your age?
I don’t think people feel my innovation is less important because of my age. They can see that it is a great idea. When I go to conferences I feel there is a subtle ‘age-ism” though because at the pre-talk meetings, it seems that people think I’m a speaker’s child tagging along but after I speak then I get to have the most amazing conversations. That’s why the internet is so great – people can’t see what age or race you are and I can have a great exchange of information.
–Was your discovery easy? Did the innovation come in a flash…then the details worked out?
I like to read a lot of journals and articles about different topics and then lie on the couch or take a walk and just let all the information settle. Then all of a sudden I can get an idea and connect some dots. Then it’s back to reading so I can fill in missing pieces. With this sensor I had put in a lot of time learning about nanoparticles for my previous research on the effects of bulk and nano metal oxides on marine and freshwater organisms. I felt that single walled carbon nano tubes were like the super heroes of material science and I wanted to work with them some more. Then when I was reading a paper about them in biology class, the teacher was explaining about antibodies. All of a sudden I made a connection and wondered what would happen if I dispersed single wall carbon nanotubes with an antibody to a protein over-expressed in pancreatic cancer. Then of course there was a lot of reading, learning and planning in front of me!
–How did your “rejections” help drive you? Or frustrate you?
I had visited ISEF when my brother was competing and talked to kids who mentioned they had done their work in a lab. It seemed so easy so I stalked the internet and found the names and professional emails of lots of professors in my area who were working on pancreatic cancer. Then I just figured I’d sit back and wait for the acceptances to roll in! Week after week I’d receive endless rejections. The most helpful one was actually from a researcher who took the time to point out every flaw and reason why my project was impossible. I began to despair!
–What is the role of mentors in helping you?
Finally, after 199 rejections, I received one email from Dr Maitra at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He invited me to come for a meeting. My mom drove me there and dropped me off. It was pretty exhilarating yet scary to walk in to the interview! Luckily I was really prepared and even had the cost and catalog numbers of the material I needed. He said it was like reading a grant proposal. I still had a great deal of basic lab routine to learn and I appreciate the time and patience of both Dr Maitra and Dr Chenna, the post- doc who supported me.
–What do you think about science as the driver of your fame?
I’m very surprised that people know about me. My original goal was to see if I could make a simple inexpensive sensor to detect pancreatic cancer because too many people were dying. I’m very happy that I’m known for science though because I enjoy sharing and learning about it so much. I hope kids feel ‘if Jack can do this, what can I do?’ and get inspired to take on big challenges in their own lives and communities.
–How has your world expanded from this innovation?
These past few months have been life changing. I’ve met so many of my heroes in math, science, and politics, including the Clintons when I spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative. I’ve traveled all over by myself and learned how to enjoy speaking and sharing my ideas with large audiences. One of my most world- expanding experiences came very quickly when I went to Singularity U in California. I met people who weren’t afraid of failure, but just used failure to say well that path didn’t work and moved on. I met people who were trying to improve the world for billions of people. They were starting businesses and thinking big and supporting each other. They told me about the Thiel Fellowship and opened my eyes to different ways of accomplishing goals. I’ve learned to look outside myself and my small community to the larger world and think about how I can help change the world for the better.
–What’s next for Jack?
I’m working on my next project but of course it isn’t coming easily! Professors still reject me from their labs saying that I don’t know enough, perhaps not even reading my proposal but just seeing ‘high school student’ on the proposal. But even great researchers still don’t always get accepted for every grant. Perseverance still counts! I’m trying to get a group of teens to work on the Tricorder X prize as ‘Generation Z’ and it’s difficult finding like-minded teens who can bring something to the table and who also have time in their over scheduled lives. I’m speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine in London and then at TED at Long Beach this month, talking with different biotech companies about producing my sensor and starting my first business. And of course there’s homework to be done!
Well done Jack!
One final thought about Mr. Andraka. I believe a more appropriate name for this post would be “Health, Innovation and a Man Named Jack”.