He’s 16, still in braces and by the way he’s invented a test for cancer

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jun 14, 2013 in Rat News | Subscribe

And then you learn that aged 15 Jack Andraka discovered a near-100 per cent accurate test for pancreatic cancer that diagnoses early enough to ensure an almost 100 per cent chance of survival. In context: only 5.5 per cent of those diagnosed currently survive for five years. Andraka’s test, 400 times more sensitive, 168 times faster and 26,000 times cheaper than today’s, will revolutionise that. It can also be applied to ovarian and lung cancer.

Jack, now 16, is certainly not average. His lightbulb idea occurred while reading an article on carbon nanotubes in a journal he’d smuggled into biology class under his hoodie. He recognised that nanotubes could suspend a protein, which, when coated on strips of filter paper, could cheaply and reliably test for pancreatic cancer (the disease killed both a family member, and his hero, Steve Jobs). “Just after I had my ‘eureka’ moment,” he says, “the teacher stormed over and confiscated the journal.”

He wrote to 200 professors begging to develop his theory. All but one rejected him. Dr Anirban Maitra, at the Sol Goldman Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore was prepared to take the risk. “Because of the laws on child labour, I was ‘a volunteer’ and snuck into the lab through a back door,” says Andraka.

The potential of his discovery is huge: “You can switch the antibody to detect all kinds of diseases: HIV and Aids, Alzheimer’s, heart disease,” he explains.

Today we’re in a café of corporate blandness near Waterloo. Andraka sits, hands in lap, a keen smile across his schoolboy features. He’s telling me how an “ordinary kid” from Crownsville, Maryland, has become an award-winning inventor, scientist and campaigner before he’s old enough to vote. Or drive. Or drink alcohol.

“I wouldn’t call myself smart,” he says. “I know people who are way smarter. But … I guess it’s how you use information. It’s about creativity rather than facts. I’m a creative thinker. My parents never told me answers. They told me how to think, not what to think. I disagree with our bulimic education system: learning by rote and then puking up all the facts in an exam.”

His mother Jane is sitting nearby absorbed by her iPhone. She was “not a ‘tiger mother’”, he says. Both parents work: his father Steve is a civil engineer and Jane is a hospital anaesthetist. He has a brother, Luke, 18, who is also a science fanatic. “We went to science fairs all the time. Except he had the additional interest of beating me up.”

Was their rivalry fierce? “Nah, I guess it’s friendly rivalry. Friendly-ish. We’d argue about something. I’d be right. He’d beat me up.”

Did he always get good grades? “No! I played up a lot in elementary school. Mum was always being called in to see the principal. I talked all the time. I played practical jokes.”

Jane interjects: “That one with the water balloon,” she shakes her head, the memory apparently still vivid.

“Oh yeah. Let’s just say my teacher got soaked. I was a terrible kid, actually.” He pauses. “I found it boring, and that came out in the form of torturing my teacher.”

As a kid he loved the Harry Potter books and played piano — “like everyone, and like everyone I gave up” — soccer and baseball. He lost interest in computer games “early on”. The boys kept pet rats, then ferrets. “One’s called Faraday, after the scientist, one is Ginny Weasley, after the Harry Potter character.” They also have a Golden Retriever called Casey.

It’s too normal, I say. Didn’t his parents push him at anything? “There was one thing,” he says. They exchange a look, and then his mother admits: “Well, I was disappointed when he gave up musical theatre.” She adopts an adoring tone: “Aww, the Christmas plays. Those were the days.”

“And one year,” Jack says, “I played Prospero in The Tempest. Do you remember, Mum? I had like 50 berjillion lines — oh my God!”

“Yeah, sure,” she replies sardonically, “because you hated being the centre of attention.”

By the age of 11 Andraka had “shaped up”. He was a straight-A student. “People are surprised to hear that I go to a really bad school on the city border,” he says. “There’s like a 50 per cent drop-out rate. They think I’m at a fancy school.”

“I don’t believe in fancy schools,” his mother says flatly. And Jack agrees, “[State] schools teach you about real life, normal people.”

“Poverty,” Jane puts in.

“It’s important,” he says, “except you can’t go to the bathroom.”

Really? They might hurt you? “No,” he laughs, “they don’t put geeks in lockers any more. You can’t go to the bathroom because everyone’s doing drugs.”

These days he goes to school “one to four times a month” because of his lecturing, and keeps up online. Has he ever been in trouble? Drink? Girls? “I’m gay, so no. And I wouldn’t know where to find alcohol.” His friends have the same interests: “Maths. Science”. He doesn’t get grounded? His mother snorts. “There’s nothing to ground him from: ‘Right, you can’t go to the lab! ‘I’m going to take away your maths books! I’m sending you to the movies!’”

There are downsides to parenting such enthusiastic scientists: Luke “likes fiddling with high-voltage electronics and explosives”, explains Jack.

“I wasn’t happy to find he’d made nitro-glycerine on my stove,” Jane remarks dryly. She shows me a clip of Luke blowing up something. Her screams are recorded: “Oh my Gaaad! My ears!” And then Jack once cultured E coli, “right by where we make sandwiches. That’s was it. I said: ‘Right we’re having a lab in the basement’.”

Jack’s cancer discovery won him the top prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair — and $75,000 towards his college tuition (internet footage shows him going nuts with joy, screaming, crying and hugging all the presenters).

He won  a further $100,500 in smaller individual categories while his brother won $96,000 for a project about how  toxic mine drainage affects the environment. While Luke has enrolled at Virginia Tech, Jack has another two years before college — “I want to go to Stanford.”

Today he’s confronting electronic journals — the kind he used to research his cancer breakthrough — on their pay-wall policies. “Each one costs about $35, so I can only afford a few. I want it democratised so anyone can innovate, regardless of age, background, gender. I want to change that.”

Indeed. One imagines Jack Andraka will be changing the world for many years to come.  

Jack Andraka will talk today at TEDxHousesofParliament. Watch it online at new.livestream.com/tedx/tedxhousesofparliament.

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