Jack Andraka finds novel sensor detect pancreatic cancer

Jack Andraka finds a novel sensor to detect pancreatic cancer

6:28 AM, 4th July 2016
Jack Andraka finds a novel sensor to detect pancreatic cancer
Jack Andraka finds a cost effective technology to detect pancreatic cancer.

In an interview 14-year old, Jack Andraka with Chemical Today magazine talks about how he rose above all obstacles to find a cost effective technology to detect pancreatic cancer.

Tell us about your current research.

When I was 14, I started working in a lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to try to develop a novel sensor to detect pancreatic cancer. My idea was to mix a combination of single walled carbon nanotubes with the antibody to mesothelin, a biomarkers believed to be over expressed in that disease. I had dipped strips of ordinary lab filter paper in the mixture and let the layers dry. The mesothelin would bond with the antibody. Pushing the network of nanotubes apart, changing the electrical properties of the strip, which I could then detect using a common ohm meter.

Give us a brief about the materials used for your research.

I used single walled carbon nanotubes because they are readily available and inexpensive and their structure allows for the integration of protein. This structure also allows them to conduct electricity without heating up enough to denature the protein. Due to their large electrochemically accessible surface area, they are considered very attractive electrodes. The addition of molecules into a carbon nanotube percolation network can drastically change the electrical properties of the network. I used mesothelin, a protein believed to be over expressed in certain cancers mixed with the carbon nanotubes and layered onto ordinary lab filter paper for some strips and I used keratin, a protein which has a similar structure to mesothelin, mixed with carbon nanotubes layered onto filter paper, as a control.

What are the biomarkers or proteins that you work with? 

Many biomarkers are over expressed in pancreatic cancer. In this study, the pancreatic cancer biomarker mesothelin was detected. Mesothelin has been found to be over expressed in pancreatic cancers while not being over expressed in healthy tissues or in patients with chronic pancreatitis. Mesothelin can be found in blood serum.

Did you use the same methodology for identifying all the three - ovarian, lung and pancreatic cancers?

Interestingly, mesothelin can be over expressed in pancreatic, lung and ovarian cancers. Thus this sensor would not be specific to pancreatic cancer alone but could serve as an inexpensive and rapid method to detect the presence of mesothelin and a need for further tests.

What were the challenges that you faced in this process?

My biggest challenge was to find a mentor since I was starting this research before I was even in high school and my age and inexperience prevented me from being considered in many labs. So I emailed about 200 professors asking to work in their lab. Since I was 14 with no lab experience it was no surprise when I was turned down by 199 professors but I did obtain an interview with one professor and after an interview I was accepted and was on my way! Of course, once I started working in the lab I had many setbacks due to my lack of experience: I dropped samples, contaminated samples; ruined cell cultures in the wrong size centrifuge and the Western Blot drove me crazy! Finally though, I was able to create strips that could detect increased levels of mesothelin in the lab. Another obstacle I struggled with was the lack of open access to scientific journals. This is a huge obstacle to young innovators because an article can be very expensive ($35) which can really add up when you are doing research. I would not have been able to do this research without the internet and Google - there simply aren't any books I need available to me in my local library. That’s a big reason that I am such a champion for open access – imagine how many people can learn and innovate if they have access to knowledge that in many cases has been paid for by their taxes!

How is your technology more cost effective than current technology?

I made small batches of the strips by hand dipping them and could perform several tests on each strip, bringing the cost per test to about 3 cents. There are different kinds of ELISA tests and the cost of some of them at the time I was researching was as high as $800.

How difficult was it for you to take your innovation outside laboratory?

As I mentioned, I was only 14 when I first developed a biosensor to detect mesothelin and I naively thought I could have the idea go to market in just a few years ( a year seems like a really long time when you are a young teen!). Even though my mentor advised me of the prolonged process required, I didn’t grasp the amount of development required and overestimated my ability to push the idea forward quickly. I now see that, of course, my mentor was correct (no surprise there!) that it has a long way to go. I think the great thing about my idea is that it shows that with the internet, new innovations can come from anywhere and that industry should be aware that hidden innovators can develop ideas as well.

Are you in talks with the pharma companies for commercialising your technology?

I spoke to several very large pharmaceutical companies. Unfortunately, they wanted me to bring the sensor through clinical trials which I simply am unable to do being a college student now with limited resources. My hope is that someone can take this idea and develop it for public good. I am not interested in making money from this idea but I would love for it to move forward.

What are the other research projects you are working on?

Right now I’m working on several projects. I am really interested in global public health issues so I’m developing my idea of water filters made from recycled plastic water bottles. I’m continuing to refine my cancer biosensor strip and I am starting a research project using nanorobots which will find and destroy cancer cells.

© Chemical Today Magazine

  • See the Interview Coverage in Chemical Today magazine (Pg 36)


  • View the interview on Mobile, download the Chemical Today magazine app





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