This article was written by Jack Andraka as part of GE’s Dare to Do collection that explores the imagination and curiosity of those who dare to do great things.
My story began when I was only 13. I still remember the day when a close family friend, who was like an uncle to me, passed from pancreatic cancer. I was shocked and confused. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was, much less pancreatic cancer. I turned to any teens go-to source of information — Google and Wikipedia.
I found that 85 percent of all pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late, when someone has less than a 2 percent chance of survival. Very few people with pancreatic cancer survive five years from diagnosis. There isn’t a reliable way of detecting these cancers early, when a person could have the best chance of treatment and survival. In fact, the current method for diagnosing the cancer is a 60-year-old technique that costs $800 per test and is notoriously unreliable. I was determined to find a better way to diagnose the disease.
Armed with only teenage optimism and energy I was determined to find a better way.
A breakthrough moment came when I was sitting in a biology class reading an article about single-walled carbon nanotubes while the teacher was talking about antibodies. Suddenly it came to me: what if I combined what I was reading about (nanotubes) with what I was supposed to be learning about (antibodies) and created a way to detect pancreatic cancer? Perhaps having a ‘beginner’s mind’ with no preconceived ideas was a help.
Still, I had to test my hypothesis. I had to design an experiment and then find a lab to do the work in. I initially thought I could just send out a few emails detailing my experiment and I would get into a lab but the truth was much more painful. I sent out 200 proposals and received 199 denials. I learned a lot from the rejections and was able to refine my emails each time. Finally, Dr Anirban Maitra offered me space in his lab at Johns Hopkins University.
People ask me why I persevered — I was just determined to see if my project would work. I learned a lot from the rejections and was able to refine my emails each time and eventually was offered a spot in Dr Maitra’s lab at Johns Hopkins University. He said one of the main reasons he accepted me was that I had written a very detailed experimental design with budget, timeline and even catalog numbers of required resources. My preparation had paid off!
Of course since I had never worked in a lab I had a lot to learn and made many mistakes. I spent weeks growing my pancreatic cells and then would drop them or contaminate my cultures and I had to start all over again. But I persisted and learned and worked after school, on weekends and holidays and even my birthday. Finally, after seven long months I had created a paper strip that could detect a protein that is found in large amounts in people with pancreatic, ovarian and even some lung cancers. It cost 3 cents, takes five minutes to run and is very specific and sensitive.
I think that great ideas can come from anyone and anywhere.
The Internet makes it possible for people who used to be shut out of the scientific community to develop creative solutions and solve problems in their communities. That’s why I’m working for open access to break down financial barriers to scientific journals so everyone can learn. After all — if a 15 year who didn’t even know what a pancreas was can develop a new way to detect pancreatic cancer — just imagine what you can do.