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His name is Jack Andraka, and he loves science and engineering with every inch of his 15-year-old soul.
June 21, 2012 4:20 PM   Subscribe

15 year old reinvents cancer detection, wins Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Andraka’s diagnostic breakthrough is a humble piece of filter paper, except that it is dipped in a solution of carbon nanotubes, which are hollow cylinders with walls the thickness of a single atom, coated with a specific antibody designed to bind with the virus or protein you’re looking for. Andraka’s key insight is that there are noticeable changes in the electrical conductivity of the nanotubes when the distances between them changes. When the antibodies on the surface of the nanotubes come in contact with a target protein, the proteins bind to the tubes and spread them apart a tiny bit. That shift in the spaces between tubes can be detected by an electrical meter. Andraka used a $50 meter from the Home Depot to do the trick but, he says, doctors can just as easily insert his test-strips into the kinds of devices used by millions of diabetics around the world.

WSJ interview with Andraka
posted by heyho (57 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just sent him my resume.
posted by msalt at 4:24 PM on June 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


My high-school-agr cousin just got back from the Science Fair rounds in Pittsburgh. I'll have to ask him if he saw Andraka's project in any of the rounds. So cool.
posted by nicebookrack at 4:29 PM on June 21, 2012


dipped in a solution of carbon nanotubes

Kids these days and their carbonated nanny tubes. When I was a kid we had dirt on a stick and if you managed not to poke out your or your friends' eyes, you were already considered a genius.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 4:37 PM on June 21, 2012 [22 favorites]


Update: Readers have pointed out that Andraka is not the first to create a sensor of carbon nanotubes coated with antibodies. Here is a paper from 2008 by researchers at the University of Delaware who created an exceptionally sensitive sensor for cancer breast cells, and a July 2009 paper from researchers in South Korea working with prostate cancer cells
It remains to be determined what, if anything, was novel about Andraka's approach.
posted by grouse at 4:43 PM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


It remains to be determined what, if anything, was novel about Andraka's approach.

He was 15 and spent less than a hundred on it?

Just kidding! I haven't read the articles and have no idea.
posted by jsturgill at 4:46 PM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


It remains to be determined what, if anything, was novel about Andraka's approach.

He's one kid and he's 15. Sure the idea may have been in the big medical papers, and it may not be totally novel, but he developed something that could be used universally.

Bravo, kid.
posted by Benway at 4:47 PM on June 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Replicating results is a big deal, that it was done by a young person on the cheap is just icing.
posted by The Whelk at 4:52 PM on June 21, 2012 [15 favorites]


Awesome.
posted by parki at 4:59 PM on June 21, 2012


I don't want to diminish Andraka's accomplishment. It's far more than anything that I did when I was 15 and definitely appears to be a meritorious project.

Still, the linked article significantly overstates his accomplishment. He didn't "reinvent cancer detection;" he applied an existing technique used for other kinds of cancer to prostate cancer. What is described as his "key insight" is someone else's published insight that he applied.

Looking at the range of techniques used in Andraka's abstract, there is no way that the research involved was done without the substantial help of others or for less than $100. Acknowledging the previous literature and the other researchers involved may interfere with the sensational narrative some want to present, but I don't feel the need to give that narrative a lot of deference.
posted by grouse at 5:08 PM on June 21, 2012 [19 favorites]


With nanotubes, graphene and memristers et. al. being such newly discovered and incredibly capable materials, I can't help but think that there are going to be a lot more "amateur" breakthroughs out there in the near future.

World-changing stuff. I hope. Like this guy.
posted by Aquaman at 5:08 PM on June 21, 2012


15-year-old science reporter invents hyperbole, fundamentally changes understanding of the universe fivever (that's one more than forever.)
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 5:11 PM on June 21, 2012 [21 favorites]


Well, he may have also cured cancer, if the earliest possible detection results in successful treatment the vast majority of the time.
posted by Brian B. at 5:18 PM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


So ever since I heard Geordi LaForge talk about them on Star Trek: TNG I have often joked that "carbon nanotubes" was just science-y technobabble that magics the B-plot problem away, but I am glad I was seemingly wrong, in this instance.
posted by sinnesloeschen at 5:24 PM on June 21, 2012


Sure I read the update in the linked article, but did the people who wrote those papers also find a way to apply their findings to something practical? I don't know the answer to that, but it sounds like this kid did.

The sensor costs $3.00; 10 tests can be performed per strip. A test takes 5 minutes and is 168 times faster, 26,667 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive than ELISA, 25% to 50% more accurate than the CA10-9 test and is a sensitive, accurate, inexpensive, and rapid screening tool to detect mesothelin, a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. (LINK)

His study resulted in over 90 percent accuracy and showed his patent-pending sensor to be 28 times faster, 28 times less expensive and over 100 times more sensitive than current tests. (LINK)
posted by heyho at 5:28 PM on June 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


Two things:

1) Reporting on science fair winners always exaggerates the importance of their results. I guess it makes headlines, and it's probably nice for the student's teachers and parents. But I know if I were this dude, I'd be pretty embarrassed that people were overstating what I had done to this extent. It's impressive enough as it is; to me any exaggeration cheapens the accomplishment.

2) Science fair winners often have academics in their families. Partly it's because of family affinity (children of doctors become doctors, etc.) but it's also because those family members can give the kids access to laboratories and a direction in research that others don't have. This is not exactly a bad thing: the best science fair projects should win. You can try to make access to physical resources equitable (such as by requiring the submission of budgets for projects), but it is neither feasible nor desirable to completely stop adults from giving guidance to students. On the other hand, it kind of defeats the purpose of science fairs if the only people who make it past the regional level are those who are being tracked into academia anyway.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:29 PM on June 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Congrats to the kid. However any kid who is still in pre-calc does not have the wherewithal to provide a sophisticated analysis of the electrostatic interactions between carbon nanotubes, because that shit takes calculus to understand. I guess conceivably you could be taught how to plug everything into Matlab or something similar without knowing what the hell the program was doing

I went to a magnet math and science center that produced a lot of kids like Andraka, not winning the Intel prize but getting their names on research that seemed amazingly advanced and sophisticated for being teenagers. It was a matter of proper networking and knowing people in labs who would take you on as an intern or lab monkey. Sometimes the kids actually knew what they were doing; sometimes they didn't. I imagine Andraka is not one of the "posers" but make no mistake, he wasn't independently conceiving of assays and manufacturing them in his backyard.
posted by schroedinger at 5:33 PM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


With nanotubes, graphene and memristers et. al. being such newly discovered and incredibly capable materials, I can't help but think that there are going to be a lot more "amateur" breakthroughs out there in the near future.

So your money's on a grey-goo apocalypse?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:47 PM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Okay but is it cheaper then bacteria that changes the color of your poop, depending on what diseases you have?

Hmm. It would be interesting if this kid found something new, but it sounds like a case of Bad Science Writing™ where journalists hype some random thing to make it sound earth shaking.
The sensor costs $3.00; 10 tests can be performed per strip. A test takes 5 minutes and is 168 times faster, 26,667 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive than ELISA, 25% to 50% more accurate than the CA10-9 test and is a sensitive, accurate, inexpensive, and rapid screening tool to detect mesothelin, a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. (LINK)
Not if the researchers who first wrote their papers patented the results, it might only cost that to manufacture but if you have to pay high patent licensing fees. Look at the BRCA1 gene which has a major impact on breast cancer. Nowadays, it's fairly cheap to scan someone's entire genome, but this company has a patent on that particular gene which prevents anyone else from testing for it, at least in the US. While the test might have expensive years ago, it would be cheap if not for the patent.

The other thing is there's not much incentive, again in the US to develop low cost tests or treatments. The more expensive a treatment is, the more money you make! So there's no real reason to try to drive down costs. In other countries, like the UK they do research ways to lower costs, since the government is paying for it anyway

posted by delmoi at 5:51 PM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Andraka, when the walls fell
posted by Renoroc at 5:55 PM on June 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


Nanotubes, they're spread wide
posted by schroedinger at 6:02 PM on June 21, 2012


His parents, he says, never really answered any of the questions they had. Go figure it out for yourself, they would say.

This is great parenting. Questions are far more exciting than answers.
posted by rocket88 at 6:08 PM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Smart, driven kid — he'll certainly go very far and will likely make the world a better place, and there's no shame in extending ideas, or any easy way to fault his enthusiasm. Still, apropos of nothing, we were chewing the fat in the lab about this today when we came across this reinvention of integral calculus, along with criticisms of the paper and a rebuttal from the author.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:23 PM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I read somewhere else (reddit, I think?) that he was actually just one person on a team of adults that did this, but that credit was given to him so that he could enter the science competition.
posted by hermitosis at 6:33 PM on June 21, 2012


For now Andraka is going to continue promoting his breakthrough test, which he says will “completely replace the ELISA test” within a few years.

This guy will fit right in in academia.
posted by euphorb at 6:48 PM on June 21, 2012


Andraka says “hopefully” he will finish North County High School in Glenburnie, Md., but if he does form a company to commercialize the nanotube test strip, he will put high school on hold.

Huh.
posted by stbalbach at 7:06 PM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


However any kid who is still in pre-calc does not have the wherewithal to provide a sophisticated analysis of the electrostatic interactions between carbon nanotubes, because that shit takes calculus to understand. I guess conceivably you could be taught how to plug everything into Matlab or something similar without knowing what the hell the program was doing

Someone else had already done that work, it looks like. From what I can tell, he 'just' built a cheap sensor.
posted by empath at 7:08 PM on June 21, 2012


Someone else had already done that work, it looks like. From what I can tell, he 'just' built a cheap sensor.

No, you don't have to do the exact calculations yourself, but you should still be able to garner a rough idea of what's happening. The PhD students I work with aren't doing PChem night and day but they still need to maintain a rough understanding of thermodynamics. Pre-calculus is so low on the math scale that I am skeptical of how much of the science this kid truly understands.
posted by schroedinger at 7:38 PM on June 21, 2012


“I got a really fierce patent lawyer right after I won ISEF,” says Andraka, laughing, from his home in Maryland.

I find that attitude a little disconcerting. Obviously, finding a way to vastly decrease the cost of cancer tests while increasing accuracy deserves to be rewarded. I hope it's rewarded in a manner that encourages other to make the kinds of insights this kid made, and doesn't prevent others from building upon his accomplishment.
posted by Loudmax at 7:58 PM on June 21, 2012


Yeah, you essentially can't get primary antibodies for less than $100 unless you're bleeding the rabbits yourself.
posted by maryr at 9:32 PM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


"He says he’s been contacted by four companies, including Quest Diagnostics"
As soon as Quest or the others get a hold of it, his $3 test strip will no doubt turn into a $40 test strip.
posted by lee at 10:12 PM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I did my graduate work in sensors and continue to work on them professionally, and this screams of science reporting hyperbole. I can assure you that "Andraka's key insight" on carbon nanotube resistance changes has been known and used for sensing for decades. Binding biomolecules to carbon nanotubes has been done for at least a decade. Here is a peer-reviewed example of immunodetection of cancer biomarkers using carbon nanotube immunosensors from 2006.

Kudos to this kid for being enterprising enough to land a spot in a research lab at Johns Hopkins, and for being extremely scientifically apt at his age. Unfortunately, we can't gauge the accuracy of the claims in this article since it is not in a peer-reviewed paper, and even that is no guarantee that this sensor will work in manner described. Sensor results are only as good as the study design. I reviewed one paper that claimed to be able to detect lung cancer in patient breath with 100% accuracy; it turns out that the cancer patient breath samples were collected in the hospital while the healthy breath samples were not. I suspect that the authors of that paper were detecting whether or not the patients were in the hospital with 100% accuracy.
posted by Existential Dread at 10:16 PM on June 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Also, I have a feeling Johns Hopkins is going to have a lot to say regarding the patent rights on research done in one of their labs. I suspect that if this kid's name is included on a patent application (which they better get on quick, as this is a very public disclosure), it will be well below the sponsoring PI.
posted by Existential Dread at 10:25 PM on June 21, 2012


Wait, Did This 15-Year-Old From Maryland Just Change Cancer Treatment?

When the title to an article is a yes or no question, the answer is practically invariably no.
posted by Authorized User at 11:21 PM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Update: Readers have pointed out that Andraka is not the first to create a sensor of carbon nanotubes coated with antibodies. Here is a paper from 2008 by researchers at the University of Delaware who created an exceptionally sensitive sensor for cancer breast cells, and a July 2009 paper from researchers in South Korea working with prostate cancer cells.

It remains to be determined what, if anything, was novel about Andraka's approach.


Well, both of those papers were based on nanotube FET arrays, which are considerably more complex to fabricate and implement than Andraka's approach, which (based on my reading), simply relies on changes in the conductivity of a nanotube suspension embedded in filter paper. The approach in the paper linked by Existential Dread is quite different, too, requiring electrical detection of a catalytic reaction.

I honestly don't know if anyone else has implemented something like the project described in this post, which seems quite elegant and simple. Also seems hard to calibrate, though.

Just because he's using nanotubes in an immunosensor doesn't mean his work is unoriginal... the exact mode of sensing could very well be different from previously published work.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:56 PM on June 21, 2012


Having judged at science fairs where projects range from classroom-required projects from first generation immigrant children of parents that are unconvinced of the value of education to projects from the children of university professors that leveraged the research of a lab that gets multiple millions ingest funding per year, my opinion is that at this level the science fair is as much about the privilege that you're born into as the impact of the particular student. Science is a culture more than it is anything else, and this type of project is as much about having access to advanced knowledge and laboratory resources as it is about the extraordinary talent and intelligence of this particular student. Both personal wherewithal and cultural position are important, and neither should subtract from the other. Growing up in a rural community, I would have killed for access to this type of laboratory, but there's also a good chance that given similar opportunities I never would have impressed someone enough to get as much access.
posted by Llama-Lime at 12:00 AM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


When I was fifteen I was either assembling Warhammer 40k models or playing Diablo 2, so I think this kid is the kind of nerd we might need a few more of.
posted by Drumhellz at 1:09 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


My 9-year-old claims he's going to cure cancer in the form of "a pill, shot or lotion," so either way it's cool for him to have kids to look up to.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 2:32 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm really enjoying the bitter jealousy seething in the thread.

Taking a new process and adapting it to a novel purpose is still cutting edge science, it's not cheating or copying.

NPR had an interview with the kid, and he has a kitted out lab in his parent's basement he shares with his brother, who also competed in the STS last year... he's working with John's Hopkins, but to claim he's just some monkey sidekick is pretty dumb.

Guys, he won the Science Talent Search, those judges know what the fuck they're doing, OK?
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:42 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: We'll be bitter and jealous so you don't have to.
posted by donquixote at 5:01 AM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


This kid gives hope to my withered, ruined heart.
posted by Legomancer at 5:13 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm really enjoying the bitter jealousy seething in the thread.

Taking a new process and adapting it to a novel purpose is still cutting edge science, it's not cheating or copying.


I don't think people are so much jealous of him, but rather disdainful of the reporting, like vogon_poet said upstream, exaggeration diminishes the accomplishment. Additionally, when the headline itself is untrue, it puts all the claims in the article in question.
posted by Authorized User at 5:41 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Indeed. Arguably, a science fair at this level is about presentation and understanding as much as, if not more than, the project. If I'm jealous of anything, it's this kid's communication skills (and positive results, damn him).
posted by maryr at 6:11 AM on June 22, 2012


Agreed. Science fair does not equal peer review. And I'm not accusing him of being "...some monkey sidekick." However, to do his in vivo tests, he would need IRB approval, which would have to be led by the sponsoring faculty member. I'm pretty sure no characterization lab would let a 15 year old run an SEM unsupervised. And his patent rights will be assigned to Johns Hopkins. Unfortunately, this breathless article obscures his real accomplishments with inaccurate hyperbole.
posted by Existential Dread at 7:00 AM on June 22, 2012


"I came up with the idea, and it took me a really long time to envision it, and then it took about five months to complete the entire process," said Jack, who said he was inspired to create the project after a family member and an acquaintance died of pancreatic cancer.

That seems to be pretty direct claim he came up with this himself. Is he lying? Do you have evidence Prof. Maitra, his sponsor, did all of the heavy lifting? Where does it say John Hopkins has a claim to the patent? Is his test for pancreatic cancer not vastly more efficient than what's currently in the field?

Lots of idle speculation and hair-splitting running around here. Pretty ugly.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:34 AM on June 22, 2012


All universities have policies in place governing the assignment of patents issued on technologies developed in their facilities. You can find the Johns Hopkins Intellectual Property Policy on the website of their Technology Transfer Office (can't provide link from my decrepit phone). Under Section IV it states "The University owns all rights, title and interest in and to Intellectual Property developed as a result of support either directly from or channeled through the University."

Look, I'm simply speaking to my experience with IP, universities, and high school students working in university labs. He may have conceived of the idea on his own, but there is a lot of support required from prior literature, from the PI, and from the university which is simply not being credited.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:04 AM on June 22, 2012


Oh, and IANAL.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:12 AM on June 22, 2012


Interesting project and I wish that kid well, but that Forbes article is pretty bad. It sounds like the diagnostic possibilities of this technique are actually more useful in diseases other than cancer. And the headline writer really needs to get a grasp on the fact that diagnosis and treatment are two very different things, especially when it comes to cancer. Of course, Forbes did not exactly make its name with its science reporting.
posted by TedW at 8:29 AM on June 22, 2012


So, I was one of the non-primary judges who saw his work, interviewed him, and after the awards ceremony, had a chance to sit down to lunch with him and his family.

To me, he seemed like the real deal; he could answer questions about his project, but also questions to the sides of it; he was smart, and this was enormously interesting to him. I very much believe this was *his* work, not that of any mentor; *many* judges vetted this guy, and found his work to be Strong.

I think he'll go far, and was glad to chat with him. His project and quite a few others at the International Science Fair renewed my faith in the next generation; these kids are already building the future, and it looks awesome to me.
posted by talldean at 8:36 AM on June 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


(By "non-primary" judge, I mean that I judged for a special award; my vote for the special award did not count towards the main judging that declared him the overall winner.)
posted by talldean at 8:37 AM on June 22, 2012


hermitosis: I read somewhere else (reddit, I think?) that he was actually just one person on a team of adults that did this, but that credit was given to him so that he could enter the science competition.
That would get him bounced right out of any competition I've ever judged. The rules are strict about "all work must be done by the entrant". Otherwise, Pauling's kid hands in a paper on the structure of hemoglobin molecules...
posted by IAmBroom at 11:56 AM on June 22, 2012


This is so cool. Huzzah for the youngsters, who lack the cynicism and defeatism we older folks accumulate as we age.

Also, huzzah for carbon nanotubes, from chemistry co-invented by my freshman chemistry prof and college master, Robert Curl.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:47 PM on June 22, 2012


> Well, he may have also cured cancer, if the earliest possible detection results in successful treatment the vast majority of the time.

No. The five-year survival rate for early-stage pancreatic cancer is only 20%.
posted by desuetude at 5:40 PM on June 22, 2012


No. The five-year survival rate for early-stage pancreatic cancer is only 20%.

You're responding to a conditional statement with a fact that isn't relevant.
posted by Brian B. at 9:27 PM on June 22, 2012


Brian B., I don't think I am. Jack Andraka hasn't "cured" pancreatic cancer via early detection because there are not yet treatment options for pancreatic cancer which reliably result in remission. Even when it's caught early.

That doesn't diminish the immense value of early detection, quite the opposite. It opens a door. But I firmly believe that overstating or oversimplifying the implications of specific research studies does them a disservice. There's a lot of work to do there.

Contrast those odds with colon cancer, where early detection has quite literally given us the ability to cure most cases -- it has a five-year survival rate of over 90% for strictly localized cancers, dropping to about 70% if regional lymph nodes are involved, which then dives to about 10% once it's metastatic beyond that.
posted by desuetude at 10:59 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not to mention that precancerous colon polyps are routinely found and removed before they become cancerous in the first place.
posted by msalt at 11:06 PM on June 22, 2012


Jack Andraka hasn't "cured" pancreatic cancer via early detection because there are not yet treatment options for pancreatic cancer which reliably result in remission. Even when it's caught early.

Yes, it's a notoriously late detected cancer, but that doesn't limit the potential, it creates it. If a cancer is currently difficult to detect, and a future application could reveal tumors at their "earliest possible detection" point, and if those results lead to successful treatment, then it would be a potential cure. To be clear, my statement included the condition of a successful treatment. Not only that, but I was referring to cancer generally, as a category. Regardless, the field agrees. According to the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins:

An ideal pancreatic cancer screening test should be a safe, inexpensive, highly accurate test that reliably diagnoses pancreas cancer at a stage when it is not causing symptoms in the patient. This would provide that person the opportunity to take appropriate and effective action to treat and potentially cure the disease. Currently, we cannot offer a screening test for pancreas cancer that begins to meet these demands. However, the potential for screening this disease is considerably improved compared to just a few years ago.
posted by Brian B. at 7:54 AM on June 23, 2012


The challenge with pancreatic cancer screening is to have a test with enough accuracy to warrant the very invasive diagnostic tests it would take to confirm it. To be curable, it has to be treated when it is very small, and imaging is difficult for such tumors. Exploratory surgery is not something a patient would want to do if the chances of finding a cancer are too small. Let's say, for example, that we had a test that was 90% sensitive and 95% specific. Then 5% of the population at large would be positive, but since the prevalence of pancreatic cancer is low (~ 22/100,000, let's say, among those 50 and older), screening 100,000 people will give you 20 cancers out of 5020 positive tests. A patient would be hesitant to undergo invasive testing with those chances, but if you could reduce them to 20 cancers out of 100 or 50, then maybe. You would either need something extremely specific (~99.9% specificity), or a population with a higher prevalence (~1000/100,000). The former might be hard to accomplish given the noisy nature of things that leak into the serum from organs, but the latter could be done by focusing on people with really high risk due to genetic mutations (e.g., BRCA1/2 increases the risk by ~3-fold).

Finding a good screening test is hard. The technology is the first (and often the easiest) part.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:55 PM on June 23, 2012


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