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Teen cancer researcher Jack Andraka discusses open access in science, stagnation in medicine

Maryland high school student Jack Andraka burst into the international scientific scene last year after winning the Gordon E. Moore Award at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He was awarded the top honor for developing a novel paper sensor that detects pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancers in five minutes and costs as little as 3 cents. The rapid diagnostic test is 168 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive and more than 400 times more sensitive than the current test.

Andraka was inspired to create a better way to detect pancreatic cancer after a close family friend, who Andraka often says was like an uncle to him, was diagnosed with the disease and passed away shortly afterwards. After conducting research and learning that the current test for detecting the disease is 60 years old, and that the majority of pancreatic cancer cases are diagnosed at a late stage, he set out to invent a better method and hopefully save lives.

This fall, Andraka will deliver the opening keynote at the Stanford Medicine X conference, where he'll talk about curiosity, open source research and the new scientist. I recently had the chance to ask him a few questions about his work.

At what point did your quest to learn more about pancreatic cancer transform into a research project to create a faster, cheaper and more accurate diagnostic test?

When my uncle was first diagnosed I really didn’t understand the gravity of the disease. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was! When he died so quickly after his initial diagnosis I was so surprised. I spent a lot of time on the Internet learning about the pancreas, pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. I learned about how the disease was often discovered when it was advanced and how the lack of a reliable early detection screening method led to so many deaths. I thought there had to be a better way and started sketching out criteria for what an early detection method would need. At the same time, I was still reading about nanotubes, a subject that fascinated me and that I had done a project on the year before. When I sneaked a paper on nanotubes into biology class one day, the teacher was lecturing us on antibodies. I wondered what if I combined what I was reading about (single walled carbon nanotubes) with what I was supposed to be learning about (antibodies) and made a sensor to detect pancreatic cancer. Of course I had a lot of research to do to even begin making an experimental design!

You contacted more than 200 scientists involved in research on pancreatic cancer requesting space in their lab to test your experiment and only received one response. How did you overcome this challenge and find the motivation to move forward without losing hope?

I spent a lot of time preparing my proposal and I was quite excited about it. I used the Internet to find professors in my area who were working on the subject. I figured I would send some e-mails out and then sit back and wait for the acceptances to roll in! Of course these are busy and successful professionals and many didn’t even take the time to respond to a 14-year-old. Those who did either replied that they had no room, or that they were working on something a bit different or even that my idea was impossible. Many times I was dejected and discouraged and my mom would tell me that maybe in a few years when I was 16 I could try again, or that maybe I could change my research topic. Then she’d tell me that if I believed in my topic I should keep trying. So I’d head back to the Internet and look up some more names. Actually all the rejections helped me because I refined and improved my project and bolstered it with even more detailed material lists, even including catalog numbers. When [Johns Hopkins researcher Anirban Maitra, MBBS,] said “maybe’ and invited me in for a discussion, I knew this was my big chance and came prepared with binders of journal articles and a really well-prepared grant proposal. It only takes one ‘yes’ for a door to open and then it’s up to you to take advantage of the opportunity.

What was it like to be a high school student working in a lab at Johns Hopkins?

I was so focused on convincing a professor to give me an interview to work in a lab that I didn’t think ahead to imagine what it would be like being a freshman high school student working with very experienced researchers in a lab like Johns Hopkins! Again my lack of experience helped me because I was more excited than intimidated. I first realized what I had got myself into when I arrived for my initial interview. There were so many researchers asking me serious questions and they were all much older than me. I wasn’t intimidated though because I was well prepared and enjoyed the discussion. In the lab everyone was helpful. If I asked a question, they took the time to answer. It helped that I tried to be as self-sufficient and prepared as possible and to not have the need to be “babysat."

Medicine X explores the potential of information technologies to advance the practice of medicine, improve health and empower patients to be active participants in their own care. How have you used information technologies in your own research?

I had no access to any information that wasn’t on the Internet. I was able to educate myself using Google and Wikipedia. These resources can empower not only patients, but researchers like me who do not have access to university libraries or classrooms. I was able to learn the basics and then dig deeper as questions arose. I was able to access research from many fields and then connect the dots to create my new sensor. My mentor, Dr, Maitra, mentioned a colleague who regularly brought home journals from different fields to read and think about. I did not have access to many of these journal articles due to paywall barriers, but the articles I was able to access from many different fields served the same purpose for me. I was able to download journal articles and connect the dots to create my pancreatic cancer sensor.

You recently spoke at TedxNijmegen about how stagnation in medicine poses a serious threat to human health. From your perspective, what changes need to occur in order to remedy this problem?

I think that bringing the Internet to the billions of people who don’t have access to it will cause major upheavals in the way people are able to learn, collaborate and solve problems. I also think that having open access to scientific journals is important because then an important financial barrier to knowledge would be removed. Ideas could be exchanged more easily and rapidly and hopefully barriers due to age, gender or race could be eliminated.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’ve gathered a group of teens called GenZ to work on the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize. Everyone has a different part of the project to work on. I’m working on making an inexpensive and portable spectrometer.

More news about Stanford Medicine X is available in the Medicine X category.

Photo courtesy of Jack Andraka

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