Artículos de Diciembre 2013

Jack Andraka

Lunes, 2 Diciembre 2013

Jack Andraka, the Teen Prodigy of Pancreatic Cancer

A high school sophomore won the youth achievement Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for inventing a new method to detect a lethal cancer. This 15-year-old wears red Nikes carefully coordinated with his Intel T-shirt. His shaggy haircut is somewhere between Beatles and Bieber. At school one day, he cites papers from leading scientific publications, including ScienceNature and the Journal of Clinical Neurology. And that’s just in English class. In chemistry, he tells the teacher that he will make up a missed lab at home, where of course he has plenty of nitric acid to work with. In calculus, he does not join the other students who cluster around a blackboard equation like hungry young lions at a kill. “That’s so trivial,” he says, and plops down at a desk to catch up on assigned chapters from Brave New World instead. Nobody stops him, perhaps because last year, when his biology teacher confiscated his clandestine reading material on carbon nanotubes, he was in the midst of the epiphany that scientists think has the potential to save lives.

After school Andraka’s mom, Jane, a hospital anaesthetist, arrives in her battered red Ford Escort station wagon with a saving supply of chocolate milk. She soon learns that Jack’s big brother, Luke—a senior, and a previous finalist in the same elite science fair—has been ordered to bring his handmade arc furnace home. He built it in a school lab, but teachers grew nervous when he mentioned that the device could generate temperatures of several thousand degrees Fahrenheit, and melted a steel screw to prove it. The contraption will find a spot in the Andraka basement.

“I just say ‘Don’t burn down the house or kill yourself or your brother,’” the boys’ mother cheerfully explains. “I don’t know enough physics and math to know if that’s a death ray or not. I say use common sense, but I don’t know what they’re working on down there.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal cancers, with a five-year survival rate of 6 percent. Some 40,000 people die of it each year. The diagnosis can be devastating because it is often delivered late, after the cancer has spread. Unlike the breast or colon, the pancreas is nestled deep in the body cavity and difficult to image, and there is no telltale early symptom or lump. “By the time you bring this to a physician, it’s too late,” says Anirban Maitra, a Johns Hopkins pathologist and pancreatic cancer researcher who is Andraka’s mentor. “The drugs we have aren’t good for this disease.”
But as the cancer takes hold, the body does issue an unmistakable distress signal: an overabundance of a protein called mesothelin. The problem is that scientists haven’t yet developed a sure fire way to look for this red flag in the course of a standard physical. “The first point of entry would have to be a cheap blood test done with a simple prick.
In 2012 a 15-year-old (he’s now 16) won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for developing a nearly 100 percent accurate paper sensor that detects pancreatic cancer better than anything else out there. It’s over 400 times more sensitive, 168 times faster, and 26,000 times less expensive than today’s methods.

Jack Andraka speaks after receiving Smithsonian Magazine’s first annual American Ingenuity Award for youth achievement in Washington, DC. last November. 

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