Inspiring 15-Year-Old Develops Cancer Sensor

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

Jack Andraka has invented a test that can detect early stage pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. The cancer sensor is cheaper and faster than today’s gold standard test. In May of this year, Jack Andraka’s groundbreaking research won $75,000 for the first place prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Jack plans to put that money towards college, because he’s just 15 years old.

Jack Andraka

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer and the fourth leading cause of cancer death among men and women [1]. Projections based on the changing demographics of the U.S. population and changes in incidence and death rates suggest that pancreatic cancer will move from the fourth to the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. by 2020 [2].

Pancreatic cancer can often be difficult to diagnose, and is frequently not found until later stages when the cancer can no longer be removed with surgery because it has metastasized or spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body. The overall one-year survival rate of patients with pancreatic cancer is 26%, and the five-year survival rate is approximately 6%. If the cancer is detected at an early stage when surgical removal of the tumor is possible, the five-year survival rate quadruples to about 22%. That’s what makes Jack Andraka’s invention noteworthy — the ability to detect pancreatic cancer early.

A paper sensor

Spurred by the loss of a close family friend to pancreatic cancer, Jack began looking for a simple way to detect early pancreatic cancer when he was 14. He got an idea for how it might be done during biology class and spent a few months researching the subject and writing a research proposal. He cites search engines and free online science papers as the tools that allowed him to develop his proposal. When he set out to find a mentor and a laboratory in which to work, Jack contacted about 200 researchers. He received 297 rejections and one acceptance. The researcher who said yes was Anirban Maitra, M.D., a professor of pathology and oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a top researcher in pancreatic cancer.

Jack, working with Dr. Maitra, developed a dip-stick paper sensor that tests the level of a pancreatic cancer biomarker called mesothelin (MSLN) in the blood or urine of a patient. The sensor can also be used for lung and ovarian cancer because mesothelin is a biomarker for those diseases as well.

The sensor is 168 times faster than the existing diagnostic test called an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay or ELISA, 26,667 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive. It costs just $3 and ten tests can be performed per strip, with each test taking five minutes.

The sensor is a piece of filter paper dipped in a solution of carbon nanotubes, which are hollow cylinders with walls the thickness of a single atom, coated with a specific antibody designed to bind to mesothelin (the pancreatic cancer biomarker).

Jack’s key insight is that there are measurable changes in the electrical conductivity of nanotubes when the distances between them changes. This is what makes the sensor more sensitive than existing tests: when the antibodies on the surface of the nanotubes bind mesothelin, the nanotubes spread apart a tiny bit, but enough that the electrical conductivity changes. Amplify that change by many nanotubes and it can be detected by an electrical meter. In the lab, Jack used a $50 meter from the Home Depot, but, he says, doctors can just as easily insert the paper test-strips into portable devices similar to those used by diabetics.

Just Jack

Documentarian Linda Peters created the 2012 short film “Just Jack” in the hopes of sharing Jack Andraka’s story and bringing awareness to the advancements coming in cancer detection and the massive affects it will create on survival rates.

Entitled “Just Jack”, the short film is currently a semi-finalist in the Focus Forward Film Contest and an “Audience Favorite”. Check out the video below and help spread the word on the work this teenage genius has done. You can connect with them on Twitter @JustJackFilms or Facebook.

A 15 year old boy from Maryland developed an early detection test for cancer that works and will save lives. What do you wonder about? What can you do today?


  1. Cancer Facts & Figures 2012. American Cancer Society. 2012
  2. The Alarming Rise of Pancreatic Cancer Deaths in the United States: Why We Need to Stem The Tide Today. Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. 2012 Aug.
About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.