Jack Andraka Reflects on His Work in Cancer

Jack Andraka Reflects on His Work in Cancer

Mr. Jack Andraka
Photo courtesy of HarperCollins
It’s virtually impossible to leave a conversation with Jack Andraka not feeling optimistic. Mr. Andraka is the scientist who at age 15, as a high school sophomore, developed an inexpensive blood test for pancreatic cancer. The test, which works like a diabetes strip, detects overexpressed mesothelin in the blood, a known marker of early-stage pancreatic cancer.

Here’s how the test works. Once the blood sample is placed on the strip, the protein mesothelin penetrates the nanotube network and forms an immune complex with an antibody. This forms a large immune complex, rips apart the network, and spreads to neighboring nanotubes, thus changing the electrical properties. The final result is picked up with a meter. The test is more than 90% accurate at detecting mesothelin levels, costs 3 cents, and takes 5 minutes to run.

A result of this discovery was a slew of articles with headlines proclaiming Mr. Andraka a “Whiz Kid,” “Teenage Prodigy,” or “Boy Wonder.” Mr. Andraka won the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and attended the 2013 State of the Union as a guest of President Barack Obama. He’s talked science with Stephen Colbert on late night television and has been profiled by the Wall Street Journal.

But these are not the reasons why Mr. Andraka, now age 19 and a freshman at Stanford University, leaves you feeling optimistic. Rather, it’s the sense that he has come out of a 4-year stretch receiving more public attention than most oncologists in the country—certainly more than anyone who cannot legally buy a drink—and yet, despite experiencing the invasiveness and criticism that often comes with being in the public eye, he remains interested in and optimistic about the field.

Critical Reception

Most people seemed to react to Mr. Andraka’s test in one of two ways. The first was adulation topped with occasionally hyperbolic headlines. The praise was well intentioned but sometimes a bit much, as Mr. Andraka’s mother Jane noted in one interview.  “Some people at first made him out to be Jesus Christ,” she said.1

The second reaction was a kind of skepticism inherent among medical professionals. These questions culminated in a 2014 Forbes article entitled “Why Biotech Whiz Kid Jack Andraka Is Not On The Forbes 30 Under 30 List.2

The article takes a skeptical view of Mr. Andraka’s research, ultimately concluding his invention was impressive for a high school sophomore, but that it would not change the face of cancer treatment.

Looking back, Mr. Andraka said he appreciated the opportunities his research afforded him, but he welcomed the pushback.

“I think my test is exciting. It has the possibility to do great things, but, at the same time, there is still research that needs to be done,” he said. “Plus, unfortunately, you can’t talk about the nuances of scientific research when you are doing a media interview. So I was kind of expecting the pushback after a while, and I was happy that there was someone to control the hype.”

Most members of the field who are interviewed by a national newspaper or website can understand that feeling. There is a desire to promote your work, to possibly influence the policymakers who can improve funding for the entire field, mixed with an apprehension that your results will be misinterpreted. A positive result can be wrongly seen as a monumental breakthrough.

After a while, Mr. Andraka learned how to give interviews that highlighted his work without creating unreasonable expectations.

“I definitely struggled with talking about the nuances of research,” Mr. Andraka said. “Yes, I’ve tested this, but it hasn’t gone through clinical trials yet, and there is still a lot more work that needs to be done. After a while, I began mentioning that it would be 5 to 10 years before this thing could be on the market, that there are drawbacks, and that we still need to do sensitivity and specificity trials.”

Mr. Andraka’s test for pancreatic cancer remains in the preclinical phase with a few human samples. There have been talks with companies to conduct additional studies, possibly allowing for future licensing of the technology and having different companies take the test to market.

Current Focus

Right now, Mr. Andraka is working on nanorobots. The idea is as futuristic as it sounds—nanorobots are microscopic machines with the ability to alter micro- and nanosized objects within the bloodstream.3 Possible uses include the ability to recognize the surface antigens overexpressed by pancreatic cancer cells and capture and transport the cancer cells over a preselected path.4

Mr. Andraka envisions microscopic robots programed with DNA that can enter the body with the ability to treat a patient’s cancer cells. These nanorobots would evolve with the cancer cell and could have multiple functions within a patient’s treatment.

“For example, nanorobots can combine five different therapies with different drugs at different dosages and continually be altering those therapies at those dosages in order to best treat the cancer,” Mr. Andraka said. “They can also genetically change your cells. So they will make the cell with the cancer gene glow green so that a surgeon can see it during surgery. Or they can make cells more susceptible to certain chemotherapy agents.”

Encouraging Children and Teens to Pursue Scientific Interests

Mr. Andraka has recently published his autobiography, “Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator Is Changing the World.” The book was written mainly for children and teenagers as a way to encourage an interest in science. It also discusses some of the lessons he learned while developing his pancreatic cancer test.

Mr. Andraka received 199 rejection emails before finding a professor willing to assist with his test—ASCO member Anirban Maitra, MD, now of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Rejection was difficult but also a part of the process, Mr. Andraka said.

“That’s a part of science; you have to be able to take rejection, and some of your ideas won’t work out,” he said. “Sometimes you will not be accepted into a lab. You have to accept that, but you also must be a great advocate for your ideas.

“Because if you won’t believe in them, who will?”