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January 8, 2014 11:34 AM   Subscribe

"Why biotech whiz kid Jack Andraka is not on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list." Forbes science and medicine reporter Matthew Herper sends out Andraka's draft paper on his cancer diagnostic test to scientific experts, who find the results do not match the breathless excitement attracted by initial coverage, seen previously on MetaFilter and elsewhere.

From the article:
The consensus: Andraka’s sensor is a probably a publishable piece of science that could eventually appear in a journal, and was a remarkable achievement for a high school student. But it falls far short of changing science and is only a small step toward developing a workable cancer diagnostic.
Two of Andraka's responses on Twitter:
1. "thanks so much for the article and clearing up some confusion. appreciate judges comments and recommendations."
2. "yes I am not a miracle worker and article was very fair"
posted by grouse (30 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The funny thing is, it's not even really a cancer test. It's another type of immunoassay that could be used to detect at least some subset of everything ELISA is used to detect. So, it's basically a general-purpose method that only happens to be aimed at cancer here.

If it's actually better than ELISA, that would be a pretty big deal, as ELISA is used for lots of things (including other cancer markers and many other disease diagnostics). However, comparing methods like that is not something that can be done quickly and easily. It's something that would have to be ground out in a large lab using a huge number of samples under varying conditions. Which someone should be doing, honestly, because ELISA is used a whole bunch for lots of things and anything that improves it could save a lot of money. However, it sounds like it'll never do anything that ELISA couldn't do already, unless the increased sensitivity is real (and in that case it only matters if sensitivity was the limiting factor).

So it's less of a miracle cancer test and more of something that might make a biotech company a pile of money, if it pans out.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:01 PM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

One still needs antibodies and antibodies that won't cross react with any old thing that transiently kinda-sorta resembles the relevant epitope. Having worked in a lab that generated its own supply of monoclonals for ELISA, western, and immunohistochemistry the first part is labor intensive and not easy (and that we had the best lab tech in the world handling, good god I'm so glad I was only on the purification and testing side of it briefly). The second part is awful and soul crushing and can involve starting over with chunks of antigen one hopes are surface exposed and unique as opposed to the whole thing.

And when we ordered antibodies in from 'professional' companies, they were usually cross reactive and failed at not labeling control preparations in some way. We would then have to exert extra effort towards accounting for all that.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:18 PM on January 8, 2014

Adraka seems like a great kid who wants to solve real problems. God knows we need more people like him as opposed to people 'inventing' SnapChat. But the marketing of him on 60 Minutes and elsewhere has been so overheated. Now he'll face a bit of a 'backlash' which isn't his fault other than agreeing to appear on shows that don't practice real journalism.
posted by cell divide at 12:20 PM on January 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

Given the young man's classy response to Mr Harper's article, it seems he will weather any 'backlash' with an uncommon maturity.

I wish for Mr Andraka a long and fulfilling life, and I hope he stays curious.
posted by Artful Codger at 12:26 PM on January 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

That's a very nice article. It clearly explains the science behind Andraka's headlines and takes a fair stance towards him. Andraka himself seems like a mature kid who's learnt a lot about medical research and publishing in the last couple of years, with a very gracious response to the whole thing. Heartwarming!
posted by daisyk at 12:26 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Slackermagee: Having worked in a lab that generated its own supply of monoclonals for ELISA, western, and immunohistochemistry the first part is labor intensive and not easy (and that we had the best lab tech in the world handling, good god I'm so glad I was only on the purification and testing side of it briefly). The second part is awful and soul crushing and can involve starting over with chunks of antigen one hopes are surface exposed and unique as opposed to the whole thing.

That sounds really interesting. I have a part-time job researching, testing, and (occasionally) designing qPCR assays, and I did a lot of primer design for my thesis project - I wonder how similar those jobs are? ELISA always looks like a enormous pain when compared to PCR, but I've only ever done genetic assays so I don't know what it's actually like.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:28 PM on January 8, 2014

That's a remarkably mature response from a 17 year old (happy birthday to him!). I know some adult scientists who've responded less politely to even mild criticism.

It was an interesting article - as a grad student in cancer research I've had a few people asking me what I thought about him, but I hadn't had the chance to look into the science behind it so it's great to see a brief analysis of that. Neat work, despite being way over-hyped for what it is.
posted by randomnity at 12:33 PM on January 8, 2014

I get that people are shallow, that they like the thrill of celebrity and believe in instant results. But with very few, very rare, and not very visible exceptions, laboratory science doesn't get advanced by children. The equipment to produce nanomaterials and impregnate them with antibodies requires you to be in a lab, either in industry or at a university, it means someone is giving you the practical training to use this incredibly niche and astronomically expensive equipment, and so on. So even if the materials cost pennies, the infrastructure and knowledge base really doesn't.

For example, in a previous job I could go buy a pineapple for $5 and scan it using a 3T MRI scanner. And it really took minimal skills. I could easily coach a patient and attentive grade school student to do it. But it doesn't mean I will, or that it's a good idea to do that, or that any sensible organization would be willing to take the risk, or especially that I have reduced the cost of an MRI scan to the cost of a $5 supermarket pineapple.

What these whiz kid stories are good at is generating social privilege for the next generation of children from well-placed families. Because if I led an MRI research center and my hypothetical kids showed some interest in science and research, I'd be damned if I didn't show them how stuff around the lab worked, if I didn't let them play with extremely valuable equipment and software, and otherwise try to open areas that are completely inaccessible to the public. This is one of those perks you get if you have a cool parent who happens to be a research engineer or a prominent biologist or whatever.

And if Jack Andraka wasn't playing with nanotubes, I'll be damned if he wasn't going to be doing "marine animal research" in some tropical paradise, or climbing Kilimanjaro, or doing something equally impressive-sounding and exclusive. But laypeople sure love stories about big upsets in established science or whatever, so this kind of "boy wonder makes scientific breakthrough" will always be the most impressive pedigree of all.
posted by Nomyte at 12:33 PM on January 8, 2014 [11 favorites]

Wouldn't it be great if the part we remember about this dumb list is the kid who didn't make it?
posted by DigDoug at 12:42 PM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I thought of putting this here before but Jack was profiled in The Washington Post in December and I was surprised because he said that he's never heard from a gay scientist. "After I got the Intel prize, a lot of other gay teenagers messaged me on Facebook telling me how inspiring it was and so it’s been really great. . . . But I still have yet to find another gay scientist," he said. I mentioned it on Twitter and he replied cheerfully. He seems like he has a really good head on his shoulders. Also, I love the picture of him on his website.
posted by kat518 at 12:53 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Excellent response from Andraka who was likely embarassed by the original breathless articles. Thanks for the followup post.
posted by maryr at 1:39 PM on January 8, 2014

I hope he goes far.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:11 PM on January 8, 2014

I thought of putting this here before but Jack was profiled in The Washington Post in December and I was surprised because he said that he's never heard from a gay scientist.

That seems understandable. I know several gay PhD's (a surprising number, actually), but most of them aren't vocally "out" in the professional realm. I imagine they would have mixed feelings about being known as "gay scientists," rather than just "scientists."
posted by Nomyte at 2:51 PM on January 8, 2014

I understand that hesitation, Nomyte, but I also feel like there's a double standard levied against gay scientists to keep their sexuality out of the public eye. After all, people like Feynman were even more open and flagrant about their heterosexuality, and it doesn't appear to have detracted from their scientific legacies. Plus there's the potential to help younger gay people realize they're not alone in the field. I also suspect some of this double standard may be our own doing: for me at least I wonder if there's an element of anticipating other people's criticism before it is spoken or even implied.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:56 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

This kid's claims weren't vetted by a scientist/post-doc/grad student before the media got a hold of him? Yikes. And he still hasn't published a paper? Double yikes. Sounds like our wonderful "scientific" reporting folks are still doing their typical shoddy work.

He did handle it really maturely, though. Sounds like he'll bounce back.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 4:16 PM on January 8, 2014

EFDP, I'm just reporting on my view of the state of a very small slice of the science world. I absolutely agree that it would be nice if people in science would just casually talk about their families and loved ones, paraded their romantic conquests, whatever, regardless of their sexual orientation. Absolutely! It would also be great if more people prioritized service to the community, including some kind of visible service to the gay community (is it still acceptable to talk about "the gay community," or has the pendulum of public opinion swung toward thinking of a "community" as a dysfunctional ghetto?).

But in any event, the non-gay scientists I know are just pragmatic working people with families and responsibilities, not starry-eyed enthusiasts married to science. They're the kind of people who work hard, but then generally leave work at work and want to go home and turn their brains off in front of the TV. By the same token, the gay scientists I know are otherwise just pretty regular gay guys who hit the gym regularly, go clubbing, post food pictures on Facebook, and so on. Not really the people who contribute a large part of their lives to activism or service to the community.
posted by Nomyte at 4:55 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

yup, sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you were endorsing that double standard. I don't think you even need to contribute a large fraction of your life outside of the bench to activism in order to be more visible and do a little bit of outreach. But this is something I've been thinking about lately so I'm mostly just "thinking out loud."
posted by en forme de poire at 7:01 PM on January 8, 2014

I really hope the kid either still loves science or finds something that pays better than science to get into as a career. Sucks that some journo went and over-hyped everything. Don't let your loved ones go to grad school for life sciences* unless they hate money, feel uncomfortable without financial stability, and love life science. Unless they're really good at hyping themselves, but it's not the 00's anymore.

*yes, there are exceptions; exceptional people will still be able to fill increasingly rare and decreasingly** fulfilling positions
** success after being tenured at R1 institutions relies not only on quantifiable scientific output but also a track record of writing for- and receiving- grant moneys. Year in, year out. Multiple grants every year. Not to mention the propagation of MScs and PhDs out of the lab. No consideration is made on what those MScs or PhDs end up going on to do. In order to stay tenure track, you gotta graduate a certain number of grad students at a certain rate. In order to get tenure, you'll have had to have graduated x number of grad students.

It's a similar to the classic pyramid scheme but many of the "suckers" end up with skills, so maybe it's more of a "lottery" situation than a Ponzi.

posted by porpoise at 9:36 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, porpoise, I wish I could hug you.
posted by Nomyte at 12:18 AM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's been something of a dustup about this over on the Scholarly Kitchen blog where one of the writers made many of the same points five days before Herper. Kent Anderson, the Scholarly Kitchen writer, has been accused of being a bit too critical of a teenager, and has been criticised for questioning whether Andraka's research was truly only possible because of Open Access publications, as many of the articles about his research seem to infer. An OA Activist has since deleted the Scholarly Kitchen's wikipedia page, and the wikipedia page for the SSP, in what appears to be retaliation, using a copyright claim for justification.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:05 AM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was all obvious to anyone with even passing familiarity of biomarker discovery, clinical diagnostics and immunoassays. Hundreds of similar scientific papers are published every year. The hard part is in finding a reliable marker, and that turns out to be extremely difficult for a variety of reasons. The testing part, which is what this nanotube assay is about, is essentially a solved problem.

The interesting question for me is where the fault lies. Is it the fault of this young man who was misinformed or purposely over hyped his data, which, by the way, is pretty much standard practice for many academic scientists? Is it the fault of the media which failed to do even the most basic level of fact checking and loves just so stories? Or does the fault lie with the public which has an appetite for stories like this about outsider genius teenagers that single handedly overturn established scientific consensus and solve hard problems?

The media and the public have a strong desire for these mythical figures which aren't produced at the rate needed for the 24 hour news cycle. In other words, the demand for Jack Andraka stories far overwhelms the supply of genuine Jack Andraka stories and so the media has to transmute some less than groundbreaking work into something more than it is. And this scenario benefits everyone which is why it persists. Jack Andraka wins because he gets lots of attention, the media wins because it captures eyeballs, and the public wins because it gets to read these inspiring stories. Even skeptics win because they get to read the inevitable debunkings which appear after the initial hype has died down.
posted by euphorb at 7:53 AM on January 9, 2014

In this case, I mostly blame the media. Reporters hold themselves out as professionals who can interpret events and present them to a broader audience. Matthew Herper is one of the few (only) reporters to actually do what a science reporter should in a case like this: get the paper describing the alleged result and ask other experts for comment.
posted by grouse at 8:13 AM on January 9, 2014

I think that part of the challenge is that reporters have a hard time writing science stories that aren't at least partly profile pieces. It's understandable - science can be complicated and having a compelling protagonist hooks readers and before you know it, the readers are eating their vegetables. Science stories are almost always human stories but maybe it would do readers more of a service if reporters could introduce them to more characters, like a researcher who has been working in the field for a long time and can throw a little cold water on some of the overenthusiastic stories. But I don't know how we get people to read science stories without some enthusiasm.

A story I read recently that I thought did a good job of introducing many characters, including several who disagreed with each other, was this story by Amy Harmon in The New York Times. It's easy for a reader to put herself in the protagonist's shoes as he tries to answer questions that turn out to be more confusing than he anticipated.
posted by kat518 at 9:04 AM on January 9, 2014

While the author appears to have just done his job in vetting Andraka's work, I get the feeling that he was looking to knock this "whiz kid" down a peg and gain publicity for doing so. Reading through a lot of these entries, the bar for inclusion doesn't seem to be very high. It looks like this list is more of a "who is best at marketing their ideas" list. There are plenty of people on this list who appear to have done nothing more than have an idea. Hell, the featured guy in the Energy sector is doing nothing more than selling time shares for private planes.

Not including him feels like more of a publicity grab for Forbes than including him would. He won a science fair and gained a lot of publicity for it. Science fairs projects don't have to be fully formed, publishable work. He produced a proof of concept experiment and results, that's great! His crime is overstating the impact of his work? He has quite a future in academia if he wants it where that is job 1.

He has access to a lab that can process nanomaterials which tells me that he's working closely with a professor. I'm sure that professor is getting some nice residual publicity for his own work. Forbes is getting some nice publicity for the rigor of their selections. An article like this draws more eyeballs than a paragraph blurb about his research. I just hope he's happy with the attention, education, scholarships/fellowships down the line waiting for him.
posted by crashlanding at 9:40 AM on January 9, 2014

Crashlanding -- this is the author here. That's not true. It actually doesn't even make much sense.

I can tell you that the science 30 under 30 list has generated at least an order of magnitude more page views than the Andraka article. I've had concerns about the coverage of Andraka from the moment the stories broke, but I never followed up on them, because he was just a kid. Generally, I want to take on drug company CEOs, not winners of a high school science fair.

But he kept getting bigger and bigger, to the point where I thought I had to consider him for our list. As I noted on the story, my panel of expert judges recommended including him. I agonized over what to do, and that led me to ask why he hadn't published, which led to Jack sending me his draft paper.

Once I'd sent it to experts for review, I decided the right thing to do was to publish the story. I'll be thrilled if the story does a lot of traffic, but I don't really expect it. If I wanted attention, the best thing to do would have been to put Andraka on our list. And I would have joined a lot of my colleagues in proclaiming that his test was a "breakthrough" that "changed cancer treatment."

So, no. This was in no way a grab for publicity. I promise.
posted by MatthewHerper at 12:10 PM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Matt, welcome.

Were you aware of Kent Anderson's post before coming here? He was much more aggressive than you in his criticism, and while he's denying it, he's being a bit ax-grindy about the Open Access angle. Your piece had pretty much the same essence, it was just a bit less aggressive, and focused on the research, not the kid.
posted by Toekneesan at 2:32 PM on January 9, 2014

I'd seen Kent's post; I actually favorited it on Twitter. I don't agree that the essence is the same; we make substantially different arguments. For one thing, I had access to Andraka's paper, and Kent didn't. For another, my piece makes a lot more of the way Andraka's comparisons set up ELISA to look worse. I started work on this before Kent's post went up. I started the peer review process in late December. I worked hard to not make this about the kid.
posted by MatthewHerper at 7:41 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Toekneesan, The Scholarly Kitchen in general has a major anti-OA and in particular anti-PMC ax to grind, to the extent that Kent has argued that PMC should only be working with journal publishers who are based exclusively in the USA, because it is funded by US taxpayer dollars. (Kent himself, incidentally, has no medical or scientific training and has never worked in science.) I was also really uncomfortable with the extent to which that article mined ad hom arguments by trying to make Andraka look like a fame-hungry hypocrite, going so far as to include under-sourced allegations that Andraka had tried to puff up his own Wikipedia page.

In contrast, I thought this article was completely fair and made entirely reasonable points about e.g. the comparison in money and time to ELISA and the speculative choice of biomarker.

Welcome to MetaFilter, Matthew!
posted by en forme de poire at 9:40 PM on January 9, 2014

(Kind of wish I hadn't gone down this rabbit hole as it seems that Kent Anderson has recently been badgering Andraka personally on Twitter, which strikes me as extremely distasteful.)
posted by en forme de poire at 9:57 PM on January 9, 2014

By "essence" I mean you both were examining the difference between science journalism and its frequent distortions, and scientific publishing—what does the paper say, and what do peers think. I think one of Kent's issues is that Andraka hasn't published yet, so Kent wasn't able to do what you did. But that doesn't mean he should then turn his focus on the kid and start casting a bunch of aspersions. I have to say I've been very disappointed in Kent's behavior here. I don't always agree with him, or maybe I usually don't, but he's typically a pretty smart guy who knows a lot about the business. I don't think he's cognizant of how much of a bully he's coming off as.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:34 AM on January 10, 2014

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