A promising test for pancreatic cancer from a teenager

Science & creativity

"A promising test for pancreatic cancer from a teenager"

Jack Andraka at  Ted talks

Over 85 percent of all pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late, when someone has less than two percent chance of survival. How could this be? Jack Andraka talks about how he developed a promising early detection test for pancreatic cancer that's super cheap, effective and non-invasive — all before his 16th birthday.

Jack Andraka created a Cancer detector, which is a paper on carbon nanotubes, a biology lecture on antibodies and a flash of insight led 15-year-old Jack Andraka to design a cheaper, more sensitive cancer detector.

 Jack Thomas Andraka (born 1997) is an inventor, scientist and cancer researcher. He is the recipient of the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Andraka was awarded the $75,000 Award, named in honor of the co-founder of Intel Corporation, for his work in developing a new, rapid, and inexpensive method to detect an increase of a protein that indicates the presence of pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer during early stages when there is a better survival rate with current treatments. In addition to the Gordon E. Moore Award, Andraka also won other prizes in smaller individual categories for a total of $100,500 in prize money. Andraka won a fourth-place award in Chemistry at the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a project focusing on a novel Raman spectrometer with real world applications.

Cancer Detection Method

Andraka cultured MIA PaCa cells, from a commercial pancreatic carcinoma cell line, which overexpress mesothelin, a biomarker[13] for ovarian, lung and pancreatic cancers. The mesothelin was isolated, concentrated and quantified with ELISA.[6] After optimization with the Western Blot assay, the human mesothelin-specific antibodies were mixed with single-walled carbon nanotubes and used to coat strips of ordinary filter paper. This made the paper conductive. The optimal layering was determined using a scanning electron microscope. Cell media spiked with varying amounts of mesothelin were then tested against the paper biosensor and any change in the electrical potential of the sensor strip (due to the changing conductivity of the nanotubes) was measured, before and after each application. Specifically, what happened was this:

The antibodies would bind to the mesothelin and enlarge. These beefed-up molecules would spread the nanotubes farther apart, changing the electrical properties of the network: The more mesothelin present, the more antibodies would bind and grow big, and the weaker the electrical signal would become.

A dose-response curve was constructed with an R2 value of .9992. Mr. Andraka claimed that his tests on human blood serum obtained from both healthy people and patients with chronic pancreatitis, pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia (a precursor to pancreatic carcinoma), or pancreatic cancer showed a similar response. The sensor's limit of detection sensitivity was found to be 0.156 ng/mL; 10 ng/mL is considered the level of overexpression of mesothelin consistent with pancreatic cancer. Andraka claimed that his sensor costs $0.03 (compared to his estimation of $800 for a standard test) and 10 tests can be performed per strip, taking 5 minutes each. According to him, the method is 168 times faster, 1/26,667th as expensive, and 400 times more sensitive than ELISA, and 25% to 50% more accurate than the CA19-9 test.

Officials at Intel have said that Andraka's method is more than 90 percent accurate in detecting the presence of mesothelin. He has patented his method of sensing pancreatic cancer and is communicating with companies about developing an over-the-counter test.

Many of Andraka's claims do not stand up to rigorous peer-reviewed research. For instance, a 2011 article published by Sharon et al. refutes many of Andraka's claims about specificity of using mesothelin as a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. Specifically, the group showed that mesothelin serum levels in healty donors 0.58 (0.15 – 0.72) nmol/l were not statistically different from serum levels in pancreatic cancer patients 0.66 (0.52 – 0.94) nmol/L. In addition to this issue of false positives, George M. Church, professor of genetics at Harvard University, has raised concerns about the cost, speed, and sensitivity claims.

None of Andraka's work has so far been published in a peer-reviewed journal.


"A promising test for pancreatic cancer from a teenager"
Jack Andraka by Ted talks (CC BY  NC ND). Creative Commons License

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