Teen wins Intel science prize for pancreatic cancer detector

May 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Andraka gets first prize at the 2012 Intel ISEF, which was held in Pittsburgh.

A 15-year-old won the big prize at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for designing a paper-based diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer, the fourth most common cause for cancer-related deaths worldwide. In collaboration with Anirban Maitra at the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Jack Andraka of Colesville, Md., developed a simple dip-stick sensor for early stage pancreatic cancer that is over 400 times more sensitive than current tests.

The sensor detects mesothelin, a biomarker that is overexpressed in the blood and urine of patients with pancreatic cancer but absent in patients with chronic pancreatitis or other conditions.

Andraka explains his sensor has single-walled carbon nanotubes and monoclonal antibodies that recognize mesothelin. He made an uniform dispersion of nanotubes and antibodies and then dip-coated filter paper strips with the dispersion. A nanotube network, with the antibodies on the surface, formed on the paper substrate.

The sensor worked on a microliter, literally a drop, of blood or urine. When mesothelin was present in a sample, it bound to the antibodies and pushed apart the nanotubes, increasing the tunneling gap between them.  “As the tunneling gap of a nanotube network highly affects how electricity is transferred between carbon nanotubes and how it flows through the network, the addition of mesothelin greatly altered the electrical properties of the sensor,” explains Andraka.

Andraka tested the sensor on buffers and healthy human serum samples spiked with mesothelin. He used keratin as a negative control. He also tested the sensor on mouse models and is now starting to work on human samples.

Andraka’s test beats current methods for early pancreatic cancer detection on several fronts. It’s over 90 percent accurate. It takes 5 minutes to run, which is 168 times faster than an ELISA. Andraka estimates that each sensor will cost 3 cents to manufacture.

“The sensor really has unlimited applications, as you simply switch the antibody and detect an entirely different protein. It could be used for other cancers, cancer drug resistance, and infectious diseases in food and water safety,” says Andraka. Because of its simplicity, Andraka suggests that the sensor can be used as a home test, like the ones found at drugstores for diabetes and pregnancy.

Maitra says Andraka’s story holds a great teaching moment for high school students because it has three important messages. The first is that a passion for science goes a long way. The second is the power of perserverence.  “Jack emailed over 190 professors before he got a ‘yes’ from me,” says Maitra.  Finally, adds Maitra, there is no substitute for hard work. “Jack spent long hours every day after school and on weekends getting the work done.”

As the winner of the Intel competition, Andraka received the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore Award, named in honor of Intel’s co-founder and retired chairman and CEO.

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