Cancer researcher Jack Andraka, 17, inspires at Boston Children’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit

Jack Andraka Pediatric Innovation Summit
Jack Andraka holding his pancreatic cancer detection strip
Boston Children’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards (October 30-31) drew innovators, thought leaders and researchers from around the globe.

And one guest speaker who’s still in high school.

Teen science prodigy Jack Andraka, 17, addressed more than 300 summit attendees and shared his journey from Baltimore, Maryland high school freshman to developer of an early diagnostic test for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers. And he achieved this extraordinary task before getting his driver’s license.

After the loss of a close family friend to pancreatic cancer in 2010, Andraka, then 13, sought answers. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Often diagnosed late due to a lack of reliable diagnostic testing, the five-year survival rate is less than 7 percent.

Andraka combed the Internet in search of pancreatic cancer data and read a plethora of medical journals about the aggressive and deadly disease. While most teens his age were indulging in summer activities, he spent his summer break researching more than 8,000 proteins, and found a potential pancreatic cancer biomarker, mesothelin.

From high school biology lab to research lab

Andraka’s mission to “change the face of cancer diagnostics” took a turn during a high school biology class. He had become fascinated with carbon nanotubes, tiny cylinders with electrical properties. Hearing his biology teacher lecture about antibodies, he wondered if he could combine antibodies targeting mesothelin with the nanotubes to create a test. “I thought, ‘The current test is so bad, anything I do would probably be better,’” he said.

The tenacious teenager prepared a protocol to test his idea and emailed 200 professors and researchers in hopes of finding a lab to host his research.

He received 199 rejections. But one professor took a chance: Anirban Maitra, MD, professor of pathology and oncology at Johns Hopkins University.

Maitra took Andraka under his wing and granted him access to his lab after school and on weekends. Andraka’s goal was to create a cancer detection test that was “inexpensive, rapid, simple, sensitive, selective and minimally invasive.” Combining mesothelin-specific antibodies with the carbon nanotubes, he created a paper strip that could signal mesothelin’s presence. It’s still in the early phases of testing.

International fame

Andraka has since earned international recognition for his research.

In recent years, Andraka received the 2014 Jefferson Award, the 2012 Intel ISEF Gordon Moore Award and the 2012 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Youth Award. He also made 1st place winner in the 2014 Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge, earned a spot on Advocate Magazine’s 2014 40 under 40 list and is the 2014 State of Maryland winner of the Stockholm Water Prize.

What’s next for this teen prodigy? Andraka said he will attend a university (east or west coast school to be determined) while simultaneously developing nanorobots designed to treat cancer while in the blood stream.

Call to action

Discussing the difficulties he faced throughout his cancer research journey, Andraka named one significant barrier: pay walls and lack of free access to articles and journals.

His call to action was succinct: Make science accessible to all.

“Science should not be a luxury and knowledge should not be a commodity. It should be a basic human right,” he said. “And the minds of the people must be free and that means the minds of everyone, not the minds of a select few that can afford these articles.”

Andraka said as an industry and community, “we can establish this change.”

“Think, if a 15-year-old, who didn’t quite know what a pancreas was, could find a new way to detect pancreatic cancer, just imagine what we can all do together.”

Read more coverage of the Global Pediatric Innovation Summit on Vector.