Jack Andrakas – Teenage Pancreatic Cancer Pioneer
Well this month I have a very special treat for Inspired World readers. Every month I get more and more excited and impressed by how many incredibly gifted young people that are out there creating a positive difference in the world and helping so many.
Jack Andrakas, shines out as one of them. He is a beacon of promise in the cancer field and a shining star! In life we are all faced with challenges, I know too well, as I have recently being diagnosed with breast cancer. When something life changing comes along that stops us in our tracks, what do we all do? How do we process the pain, the stress, the upset?
I know I am choosing to inspire others and am focused on creating a better world for women diagnosed with breast cancer. Helping women who are experiencing the same struggles as myself, means so much to me. It drives me forward so passionately and gives me huge strength. It also helps me focus on the positive and the great blessings in life and how everything happens for a reason. Having breast cancer has brought so many blessings and positives in my life and I am so grateful for them. Feeling my way through this huge experience has given me the drive to share and help, so it’s truly remarkable what we can achieve through fear and illness.
That is exactly what Jack has done. After losing a close family friend to pancreatic cancer he decided to do something positive and boy he is so amazing in what he has accomplished at his tender age of 15! Jack is such an example to us all to embrace what ever life throws at us and turn it around into something positive. I feel so blessed to learn from him! It has been a complete honour to get to know Jack and he has inspired me deeply. I know he will do the same with our readers. Congratulations Jack on being such a pioneer and role model in our world. You are such a gift to us and thank you for sharing your story with us.
Hello Jack it is so wonderful to talk to you today. Thank you for sharing your truly inspirational journey with Inspired World readers. It really is an honour to share your story. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how your research on pancreatic cancer started?
I was interested in science at a very early age. I remember my parents teaching me about the scientific method so that I could learn how to answer questions for myself without having to ask them ‘why’ all the time. I didn’t know it was called the scientific method at the time of course! I just loved wondering ‘why’ and then testing my ‘hypotheses’ and collecting data and then seeing what the data told me. I love science because I love learning about and figuring out the ‘why’ behind everything. I went to a school that required kids to do science fairs and every year I wanted to sink my teeth into bigger and bigger challenges.
You lost a close family friend to pancreatic cancer and it changed your life forever in more ways than one! Can you explain to our readers what you did and who you contacted to ask for help?
When a close family friend who was like an uncle to me passed away from pancreatic cancer I was sad and confused. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was! Like any teenager, I turned to the internet to find out more. And what I found shocked me: most pancreatic cancers are found late, when people don’t have a good chance of survival and the current method of detecting it misses up to 30% of cancers and is expensive
Cancers produce more of certain proteins. How cool would it be if we could detect those proteins and thus the cancer! I dipped strips of paper into a mixture of a kind of carbon called single walled carbon nanotubes and a protein (antibody) that reacts with the cancer protein. (Mesothelin) When blood containing the cancer protein is dripped on the paper it changes the paper’s electrical properties and I can detect the change with a simple tool (an ohm meter) from the hardware store, and thus detect cancer. I thought I’d send out my procedure and just wait for the acceptances to roll in. That certainly didn’t happen to my shock and dismay! I read each rejection and thought about what they said and if I wanted to continue. I was so curious and excited about my project I couldn’t give up on it! I learned to make my email titles more short and interesting in hopes of getting at least a rejection- even worse is just to have the email ignored.
Eventually I sent my proposal out to 200 professors and received 199 rejections. One researcher, Dr Maitra, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, gave me an interview and accepted me into his lab.
What was it like as a 15 year old student to be sharing a lab with Adults and Doctors? Were they supportive to you and your research?
Dr Maitra, my mentor, was such a positive influence during my experiment. I had many setbacks but he would remind me that setbacks are common in scientific research. If I had questions about why something was or wasn’t happening he would guide me to different journal articles. He was very patient. The other researchers gave me great advice about using the lab equipment. Everyone was very happy for me when my project worked!
Can you explain a little about pancreatic cancer, the symptoms, the old way of testing for it and the statistics for the survival rate?
Pancreatic cancer has been called one of the silent killers because the cancer has to be very advanced before symptoms appear. Some symptoms include nausea, weight loss, pain, jaundice, and itching. Unfortunately 85% of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late, when a person has only a 2% chance of survival. Certain substances, such as CEA and CA 19-9, are elevated in people with pancreatic cancer. However, blood tests don’t allow for early detection of pancreatic cancer, because these levels may not rise until pancreatic cancer is advanced, if at all. ELISA is a blood test that is over 60 years old and costs $800 and misses about 30% of cancers. I knew there had to be a better way!
So it was of huge importance that you found a new way of testing and helping others?
It is definitely a new way of detecting pancreatic cancer and I hope it can eventually help people and their doctors detect this cancer early and lead to cures.
It was a remarkable day when your research breakthrough happened. It wasn’t in a lab but your biology class of all places! How did all that come about?
I brought in one of my favorite articles that I wanted to read more thoroughly and planned to hide it under my desk and read it during class. My teacher at the time was really into lecturing for the entire class period so I would read more interesting articles. So there I was, sneakily reading away while listening to her with half an ear when it came to me: what if I combined what I was reading about (single walled carbon nano tubes) with what I was supposed to be learning about (antibodies) and created a sensor to detect pancreatic cancer. Of course, she then stormed over and confiscated my article and I had to stay after class and listen to another lecture about paying attention etc. but I had my idea and couldn’t wait to get started.
Of course, all I had was an idea – I needed to do a lot more research! I spent the summer reading and refining my experimental design and then I searched for professors near me who were working on pancreatic cancer.
Can you explain how you have changed the course in pancreatic cancer testing and the statistics for survival now? Is this in the USA only or globally?
This is a new idea and of course it will need lots more testing and refining before it gets to market. When I first thought of it I was only 14 and I naively thought it could be on the market in a year. My mentor advised me that it would take up to a decade. Right now I’m in talks with biotech companies to make the sensor more quickly and uniformly so it can undergo more testing.
Which other cancers will this help to detect?
My sensor detects the cancer protein mesothelin, which is overexpressed in pancreatic, ovarian and some lung cancers. The interesting thing about this sensor is that by switching out antibodies to a different cancer biomarker, you could potentially detect other forms of cancer and diseases like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and HIV.
It is truly remarkable how you have achieved this at your young age and you are an inspirational teenager and a gift to our world! You and your parents must be so proud of you! What are the current projects you are working on and what are your visions and plans for the future?
I’m working on the XPrize Qualcomm Tricorder to try to make an instrument to detect various diseases and vital signs. I’m working with a team of all teenagers. We may not win but we are learning a lot about teamwork and business. I plan to finish high school and go to college. I need to start looking at different schools and where I’d like to learn.
What is your message to our readers about the importance in achieving your goals and dreams?
Teenagers are fearless and optimistic and idealistic. Now is the perfect time to dream big ideas about how to solve problems in your community After all, if a teen who didn’t even know what a pancreas was could create a new way to detect pancreatic cancer using Google and Wikipedia… just imagine what you can do!
I Look forward to watching Jack’s journey and career in the future! What a gift he is to the World!