“After a close family friend died from pancreatic cancer, I turned to the Internet to help me understand more about this disease that had killed him so quickly. I was 14 and didn’t even know I had a pancreas but I soon educated myself about what it was and started learning about how it was diagnosed. I was shocked to discover that the current way of detecting pancreatic cancer was older than my dad and wasn’t very sensitive or accurate. I figured there had to be a better way!”
Welcome to the opening part of the narration of Jack Thomas Andraka.
Andraka has given a number of accounts of what inspired him to work on pancreatic cancer, including the death of his Uncle and an acquaintance. In looking for answers, he found that one reason for the poor survival rate from pancreatic cancer was the lack of early detection and a rapid, sensitive, inexpensive screening method. He began to think of various ways of detecting and preventing cancer growth and terminating the growth before the cancer cells become pervasive.
Andraka’s breakthrough nearly didn’t happen. He asked around 200 scientists for help with his research and was turned down every time. Luckily he eventually established contact with a Dr. Anirban Maitra, a Professor of Pathology and Oncology at Johns Hopkins University, who provided him with lab space and served as a mentor during the test’s development.
“This was the [paywall to the] article I smuggled into class the day my teacher was explaining antibodies and how they worked. I was not able to access very many more articles directly. I was 14 and didn’t drive and it seemed impossible to go to a University and request access to journals”.
In an interview with the BBC, Andraka said the idea for his pancreatic cancer test came to him while he was in biology class at North County High School, drawing on the class lesson about antibodies and the article on analytical methods using carbon nanotubes he was surreptitiously reading at the time. Afterwards, he followed up with more research using Google Search on nanotubes and cancer biochemistry, aided by online Open Access scientific journals.
Earlier this month, Andraka had a guest post published on the PLOS Student Blog entitled Why Science Journal Paywalls Have to Go.
“I soon learned that many of the papers I was interested in reading were hidden behind expensive paywalls. I convinced my mom to use her credit card for a few but was discouraged when some of them turned out to be expensive but not useful to me. She became much less willing to pay when she found some in the recycle bin!”
At 15, Andraka won $75,000 in scholarship funds at the recent 2012 Intel Science Fair for his invention of an early ‘dip stick’ test for pancreatic cancer.
Now 16 and a high school sophomore, Andraka continues his research activities while serving as an advocate for STEM education and Open Access to scientific research.
Also earlier this month, Adraka was invited to the State of the Union Address where he met and spoke with President and Michelle Obama about his work. See 'Mr. Speaker, The President of the United States...and Jack Andraka!' for more details.
“Open access would be an important first step. I would love to see research that is publicly funded by taxes to be publicly available. It would make it so much easier for people like me to find the information they need. If I can create a sensor to detect cancer using the Internet, imagine what you can do”.
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