The 15-year-old who changed the way we diagnosed cancer is now a 16-year-old with a new mission.
Jack Andraka, who developed a better test for pancreatic cancer, wants to make knowledge a basic human right.
“Science shouldn’t be a luxury, and knowledge shouldn’t be a commodity,” he said Monday at the 2013 Social Good Summit.
Andraka said that during his research on pancreatic cancer, he paid thousands of dollars — or rather, his parents did — to access scientific articles. At about $35 an article, in-depth learning can become expensive.
“We’re living in a knowledge aristocracy. We have a knowledge elite,” he said, explaining that less than 1% of the world controls scientific, academic research.
“If a 15-year-old who didn’t even know what a pancreas was could find a new way to detect pancreatic cancer, then just imagine what we all can do,” he said.
Andraka first became interested in science and research when he was 13 years old and a close family-friend passed from pancreatic cancer. Eager to make sense of the death, he took to the Internet for answers.
He Googled his way to a grim discovery: More than 85% of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late, many when the survival rate is as low as 2%. That’s largely due to the standard test, he said. The $800 test has a habit of misdiagnosing patients, and is backed by 60-year-old technology — science that’s older than Andraka’s dad.
He was so moved by the lackluster technology that he gave up his social life to spend countless hours conducting Internet research. After a summer in front of the computer, he discovered a new protein to detect the cancer.
The next step was making a a paper test strip to detect the protein.
Making a paper sensor for cancer is about as simple as making chocolate chip cookies,” he said.
But as he became more serious about his research he realized one thing: “I can’t do cancer research on my kitchen counter top.” So, he sent letters to 200 labs to help further his research in a more sterile, scientific environment. He received 199 nos.
“I learned that college professors aren’t really as nice as their profile pictures make them look,” Andraka said after receiving harsh critiques of his process.
But one lab at Johns Hopkins University finally said yes. Seven months of lab work later, he finally created one paper sensor — one that takes only five minutes to run and is 400 times more sensitive than the current pancreatic cancer test. Its total cost is only 3 cents.
Andraka hopes that the test can be expanded to detect other cancers and eventually other diseases, such as HIV and Malaria. He also hopes to take down the knowledge aristocracy.
“Imagine if we lived in a knowledge democracy,” he said. “It should be a basic human right.”