Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly cancers a person can come down with. It only has a 6 percent survival rate after five years. About 40,000 people die from it every year. The diagnosis can be shattering because it is usually given too late, after most often the cancer has already spread. It is different from colon and breast cancer in that the pancreas is burrowed deep inside the body and it is challenging to image with an MRI. There also are mainly no early telltale signs or symptoms. When someone finally goes to the doctor, it is usually too late, explains Anirban Maitra, who is a pancreatic cancer researcher and a pathologist at John Hopkins University.
Jack Andraka did not like what he heard about this type of cancer so the teenager, still in high school, wanted to do something about it. His family had just recently lost a close friend due to pancreatic cancer, and Andraka had been reading up on the disease. He and his father, Steve, who worked as civil engineer, was using carbon nanotubes to monitor compounds in water taken from the Chesapeake Bay. Andraka had become a bit obsessed with nanotubes, which appear to look like piles of black dust to the normal eye. However, they were actually small cylinders only around 1/50,000 the size of a human hair.
At the same time, he was writing a science essay at his school and he was doing it over nanotubes. With only part of his attention, Andraka listened to his teacher address antibodies, which attach to blood proteins. He had two ideas collide inside his head. What if he might be able to lace a nanotube system with mesothelin antibodies from cancer, and then add in a drop of blood from a pancreatic cancer patient? The antibodies would attach to the mesothelin and expand. These enlarged molecules would push the nanotubes farther apart, and also change the electrical properties of the network. The more mesothelin that was existent, the more antibodies which would be able to fasten and grow. This would make the electrical signals become weaker. Scientists had just designed comparable tests for prostate and breast cancers, but as of yet no one had spoken about pancreatic cancer.
As the cancer took over, the body would out a distress in the form of too much protein called mesothelin. The problem is that scientists had not developed a way to look for the distress call with just a regular physical.
So the teenage researcher worked for almost eight months, each day after school and often on weekends, living on candy bars and hard-boiled eggs as his mother waited nearby often sleeping in the family car. He worked through holidays and his 15th birthday.
For test strips, he used simple filter paper. It was thick enough to become saturated with enough required solution of nanotubes covered with carbon and antibodies of mesothelin, and was also economical. In order to be able to see what the the electrical change was within the samples, he purchased an ohmmeter that was about $50 from a discount store. He and his dad constructed the testing device which was used to grasp the strips as he read what the current said. He stole a pair of his mom’s stitching needles to use as conductors.
Around 2:30 a.m. one December morning, Jack’s mother, Jane Andraka was jerked awake by an elated Jack. She recalls the teen opening the car door, and she said that he had a huge smile on his face a bright light in his eyes. She knew he had discovered something. His testing had finally found mesothelin in imitation samples. A few weeks after that, it identified mesothelin located inside the blood of mice which had human versions of pancreatic tumors inside their bodies.
The teen had actually found a way to detect early pancreatic cancer in people by a blood test.
By Kimberly Ruble