Besides the fact that he created a new system for detecting pancreatic cancer, Jack Andraka is a pretty normal kid. The 16-year-old goes to high school in the Annapolis, MD area, had a blast at homecoming with his friends, took the PSAT, and enjoys kayaking and origami.
However, in the world of science, Jack is anything but normal.
The son of a civil engineer and an anesthetist, Jack grew up exposed to science. He said ever since he was a toddler, his parents would walk him through the scientific process without him realizing he was creating a hypothesis or conclusion to nature’s wonders. When he got to middle school, he took the reins on his curiosity and excelled.
In sixth grade, his science fair project was retrofitting low-head dams for safety -- a problem in rivers that kills dozens of people a year and something that Jack knew about as a kayaker. The next year, he played with glowing bacteria in the battle against water pollution, then took on nanoparticles.
“I came up with a lot of topics just based on my real life experience,” he said of the experiments. “My parents didn’t really help me on any of my science fair projects. They would buy me supplies.”
At this time, he was also growing into himself when he came out in eighth grade. He asked a close friend to tell people for him. Eventually word got to his parents, “which made for a really awkward confrontation when I went home that day,” he laughed. “They were really cool with it.”
As with other interviews he’s done, perhaps speaking to a new generation of thought, his homosexuality is not a defining feature in his life.
“I think of myself more as a scientist than as a gay scientist,” he said.
What would really put his name on the map stemmed from the death of a family friend he considered an uncle. He died of pancreatic cancer, a deadly disease that is almost always caught in its late stages. The current of detection costs about $800, misses 30 percent of all cancers, and is not covered by insurance.
After going through a database of 8,000 proteins, Jack was trying to find a way to detect mesothelin, a protein that comes up in the bloodstream and is an indicator of pancreatic cancer. Sitting in his biology class learning about antibodies, he read about carbon nanotubes and the light bulb went off.
“They’re really, really small and they have these really amazing properties,” he said. “I just decided, maybe if I put these two things together, something cool will happen.”
Jack got straight to work emailing 200 different scientists at Johns Hopkins University, telling them about his proposal to use nanotubes to detect mesothelins, as well as his procedure, budget and timeline. He was rejected by all but one man who would become his mentor: Dr. Anirban Maitra.
Jack went through an “interrogation” interview process before dozens of PhDs and scientists to drill him on his theory and knowledge of the science he was about to take on.
“Eventually I got through that and then they just gave me a corner of the lab and said, ‘Well, start working,’” Jack recalls.
After working in the lab for seven months, the teen created a test that would indicate the level of mesothelin in a patient’s blood or urine using a paper dip-stick. The test is far cheaper than what was previously used and is 90 percent accurate.
His creation won his school and county science fair and in May 2012 brought him to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the largest science fair in the world drawing thousands of kids from around the world working at thesis levels. Perhaps for the first time, Jack was finally meeting other kids who could challenge him.
“It’s really, really competitive and then I thought, ‘I’m not going to even win a single award there,’” he said.
As smart as he is, he couldn’t have been further from the truth. In an Intel commercial chronicling Jack’s journey, he is seen screaming with glee, jumping up and down as his name was announced for the $75,000 grand prize, holding his hands to his heart as they handed him the trophy.
Now, a year later, he has an international patent on his revolutionary invention and is working with biotechnology companies to get it on the market. He has the money he won at the fair tucked away for college -- he’s not sure where he wants to go or what kind of medicine he wants to pursue.
And we’ll probably hear from him again: he’s working with a team of all high school students on a new project for the Tricorder X Prize -- this time the stakes are for $10 million.
“I never thought that I would be able to get this point being profiled on ‘60 Minutes,’ being able to talk to world leaders, I mean it’s just really crazy,” he said.