15-year-old Jack Andraka won the $75,000 grand prize at last year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his pancreatic cancer research conducted at Johns Hopkins University. The young prodigy developed a dipstick sensor that detects high levels of mesothelin – a protein that is elevated during the beginning stages of pancreatic cancer – the time where survival rates reach upwards to 100 percent. Compared to the usual $800 standard test, Andraka’s sensor costs $0.03 and 10 tests can be performed per strip. His work has revolutionized pancreatic research and treatment protocols. Doing all of his research on Google and Wikipedia, Andraka has been referred to as “the Edison of our times.”
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal cancers, with a five-year survival rate of just six percent. Some 40,000 people die of it each year. The diagnosis can be devastating because it is often delivered late, after the pancreatic cancer has spread beyond control. Unlike the breast or colon, the pancreas is nestled deep in the body cavity and difficult to image, and there are usually no early warning signs to indicate a problem. “By the time you bring this to a physician, it’s too late,” says Anirban Maitra, a Johns Hopkins pathologist, pancreatic cancer researcher, and Andraka’s mentor. “The drugs we have aren’t good for this disease.”
Jack Andraka, the “Einstein of our Times”
During a TED talk earlier this year showcasing his work, Andraka cracked jokes, wowed everyone with his intellect, and share some important lessons he learned along the way to becoming the biggest thing in pancreatic research since the discovery of the pancreas. “Through the internet anything is possible,” he shared, “You don’t have to be a professor with multiple degrees to have your ideas valued, regardless of your age, gender, ethnicity.” The 15-year-old prodigy challenged the crowd and took his opportunity to speak at TED to inspire his listeners. “Instead of posting duck-faced pictures of yourself or taking pictures of yourself and putting them on Instagram,” Andraka admonished the crowd, “You could be changing the world.”
Andraka concluded his talk by insisting that, because over 3.5 billion people have access to the Internet globally, “There are millions more like me out there. If a 15-year-old who didn’t even know he had a pancreas could develop a new sensor for pancreatic cancer that costs three cents and takes five minutes to run, imagine what these 3.5 billion people could do and just imagine what you could do!”
Andraka’s fame gave him a special invitation to President Obama’s February State of the Union Address at the Capital, where he sat next to Apple CEO Timothy Cook. Only the future will tell what this bright young man will accomplish in the world of preventative healthcare.
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