Wednesday March 19th, 2014 by Jeff Schubert
It only takes one Jack Andraka to make me to now appreciate that schools force science on young students. I’m 46 and I still don’t know the difference between meiosis and mitosis, but at age 14, Mr. Andraka responded to the loss of his uncle, to pancreatic cancer, by dedicating himself to being a difference maker.
Andraka had an idea for a new test that would screen for pancreatic cancer, better, faster, and cheaper than what currently exists. Late detection is part of what makes pancreatic cancer so deadly.
One of the takeaways for me, from my back and forth below with Andraka, is that he never took his eyes off of his goal. No set back, no amount of rejection was going to deter him.
Going forward, without guarantees takes courage, faith and discipline. We still don’t know the end result of Andraka’s efforts, (his work is still in the ‘proof of concept’ stage). However, his efforts have already been a big success in that they have sparked research, enthusiasm, awareness, and hope that would not have come to pass without it. As it stands, his cancer detection method has earned him the the 2012 Gordon E. Moore award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He received $75,000. Further, he continues to research, speak out, and serve as a role model.
If you are unfamiliar with Andraka’s award winning project, watch this clip and than read the answers to the questions he was kind enough to answer for me:
JS: It is one thing to have an idea, but from an organizational perspective, what were the steps involved in going from point “A”, the idea, to point “B” your final execution?
JA: I knew I wanted to create a sensor to detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages, when people would have a much better chance at survival. Of course when I started I didn’t even know what a pancreas was, much less pancreatic cancer so I turned to the internet to learn more.
I spent a lot of time reading and learning and thinking and then while I was reading an article about single walled carbon nanotubes in high school biology class and listening to the teacher talk about antibodies I had an epiphany! What if I combined what I was reading about (nanotubes) and what I was listening to (antibodies) and created a way to detect cancer.
Of course I had a lot more learning to do to create an experimental design and then get into a lab and then learn lab techniques needed to make the sensor. I had a lot of setbacks but finally I created a paper sensor that can detect mesothelin, a protein thought to be over expressed in pancreatic cancer. Of course it is still a ‘proof of concept’ idea and has a lot more work to be done on it before it can go on to help people.
JS: It’s amazing that it has come this far. You came up with the idea at age 14? What gave you the belief in yourself that you can do this?
JA: Teenagers are energetic and optimistic. Our knowledge is not ‘silo-ed’ and we don’t have a fear of failure. If something doesn’t work we can just try again. So armed with my teenage optimism, I thought that I would give my idea a try and see if it worked.
JS: We’re all glad you did! Did friends or family say you were nuts? Or what was their reaction when you said, I’m going to invent a better, faster, and cheaper way to detect pancreatic cancer?
JA: My parents did not like my idea at all. I had previously worked on an environmental biosensor and they really thought that was more doable and age appropriate. I could do it at my house and not need a lab. I was just 14 and they thought this was a good idea but that I should wait a few years until I was 16 to try it.
Once they saw that I was determined to attempt the project they were very supportive and helped me emotionally through the many setbacks.
JS: That’s great… I read in a Forbes interview that you were receiving a lot of rejection and one particular letter that pointed out why what you wanted to do was impossible. You said you began to despair. Rejection, an expert saying it’s impossible, and personal despair. For a lot of people that is a recipe for giving up. How did you go on from this or any other moment of doubt?
I had spent a lot of time thinking about and designing my experiment and I really just wanted to see if it could work. The more time and effort I expended, the more I wanted to be able to give it a try, even if it didn’t turn out. I was just very curious.
In the meanwhile though, I was still going to school and having a social life like any teenager. I would just check my emails every day after school and after receiving rejections I would look up more email addresses and try again.
JS: Maintaining balance like that is important… I also read that you lost a month’s worth of work when you had cell samples explode, at what stage of your research did this occur? Was this your biggest obstacle? And how did you pick yourself up from this or any other physical setback?
JA: My setbacks came because of my inexperience. I had grown my cells and was ready to centrifuge them but put them in a centrifuge that was too small and the test tubes broke. There was nothing to do but go back and grow them again and be sure to pick a larger centrifuge!! I learned more from my mistakes than I could ever have done from reading about possible mistakes in a book.
JS: That’s very wise of you… If time, money and resources were not an issue, what would you be doing or like to see someone else do to find a cure for cancer.
JA: I would like to design a machine that could detect diseases from a blood or urine sample, and then print out a personalized medicine on the spot!
JS: Is this doable? How far away are we from this kind of breakthrough?
JA: I by myself don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to drive this project forward, which is why I’m talking with biotech companies who can. Also MIT just came out with a paper cancer sensor and they for sure have the time, resources and knowledge to bring this to market which is really what it’s all about – helping people as quickly as possible!
JS: Absolutely! … What advice do you have for someone who may not have a scientific mind but wants to make a difference in the fight against cancer?
A great thing to do is to raise awareness of the cancer and the need for more funding. Wearing the shirts and pins and hats and talking about it on Facebook or other social media is a great way to let people know about advances, about personal stories or about ways to help raise money for research.
I know other people work as volunteers getting patients to treatment and supporting them and the families or using their musical talents to play to them. Every one has a talent whether it’s doing research, gardening, sewing, speaking, fundraising or j walking in a charity walk. There is room for everyone to contribute.
JS: Couldn’t agree more! … What is open access? And what is the current status of it?
Many scientific journal articles are locked behind paywalls meaning that to access this information a person as to pay to read the article. Since you can’t return the article and get your money back if it turns out not to be what you were hoping for it ends up being a real financial burden to kids and other citizen scientists or patients who want to learn. Much of the research taxpayers have paid for is locked behind these paywalls. The open access movement seeks to unlock these paywalls so people can read the articles themselves. Recently President Obama signed a mandate saying that federal agencies funding more than $100 million of research per year to make resulting papers freely available within 12 months of publication.
We still have a long way to go and even universities like Harvard have trouble affording their journal article subscriptions
JS: I heard you talking on The Colbert Report about a Star Trek / Borg nano technology thing you’re working on? Any update on that?
JA: My team and I decided that we just have too many commitments to keep working on our project unfortunately. One key member is starting college and is super busy so we had to withdraw. On a happier note, I’m working on a cool new medical diagnostic.
JS: What is this cool new medical diagnostic and what will it do?
JA: I’m working on a new medical diagnostic test this summer- just starting the work – a different and hopefully even easier way to detect diseases!
JS: What stage are you in with it?
Just talking with labs – I can’t start until the summer when schoolwork will let up a bit and I can get to work.
JS: Good luck with it. My fingers are crossed! Since you’re so aware of cancer, what personal choices do you make as far as cancer prevention? Do you have a special diet? Exercise? Etc.?
JA: I’ve made a point of leading a healthier lifestyle that’s for sure! After reading and listening to so many experts I cleaned up my bad teenage eating habits and surprise my mom by asking for fruits, vegetables and salmon and I exercise a lot more. I really feel better and more energetic.
I want to thank Jack for being a difference maker and the first in the series! Keep up the great work!