A 15-year-old US high school student whose uncle died of pancreatic cancer has developed the first test for the disease that could detect tumours before they become too advanced to treat.
Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate for any cancer, which has remained unchanged for 40 years. It is symptomless in its early stages and strikes more than 8,000 people a year in the UK and 45,000 in the US. Four in five patients are inoperable by the time they are diagnosed and fewer than four in 100 live for five years.
Jack Andraka wrote from his home in Maryland to 200 professors seeking laboratory time to develop his idea for a screening test that would be as simple to use as a pregnancy test. The son of a civil engineer and an anaesthetist, he got the idea after researching the problem on the web and coming up with a system.
Of the 200 professors, 199 rejected or ignored him. But Professor Anirban Maitra, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, an expert in the genetics of pancreatic cancer, was intrigued. He invited Jack to come and speak to specialists in the disease who interrogated him for more than an hour.
At the end of the interview, the specialists were sufficiently impressed to allow him space in their laboratory to develop his system. The result was a dipstick paper sensor that detects the level of a protein called mesothelin in the urine (or blood) which is a biomarker for pancreatic cancer.
It is 168 times faster than the existing, inaccurate method of measuring serum tumour markers, more sensitive and, at 5 cents (3p) each, cheap. It won the $75,000 Grand Jury prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last year. Jack was recently invited to speak at the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) in London.
Experts say the pancreatic dipstick stands a chance of becoming the world’s best and cheapest test for the disease – but it will take many years of trials and further development before it can be made commercially available. Several pharmaceutical companies are said to be interested.
Jack was invited by Michelle Obama to the State of the Union address in February, where Barack Obama told the crowd what he had achieved. “Not bad for a guy who is just barely old enough to drive,” the President joked.
When Jack was asked at the RSM meeting whether he was worried that, having sent his idea round to so many experts, somebody else might take it up and develop it, he replied that it would not have mattered because it was for the benefit of humankind. That won him the loudest applause of the day.
Mentor’s view: 'An honour to have him in my lab'
Jack Andraka’s mentor, Professor Anirban Maitra, said: “Jack Andraka is fabulous. I have been delighted and honoured to have him in my lab. He sent me a nice write-up on his lab plans and research, very interesting coming from a 15-year-old boy... I am fortunate to have answered his email.”
Steve Pereira, a member of Pancreatic Cancer UK’s medical advisory board and consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital, London, said: “It is very impressive that a 15-year-old can be interested and stimulated to look into an area that is under-researched.
“Mesothelin has been looked at before but the innovation was to develop the test as a dipstick for urine...
“The excitement is in using new technology to bind an antibody to a dipstick and then use it like a pregnancy test.”