Full Transcript: My 3 Cents on Cancer by Jack Andraka at TEDxSanJoseCAWomen

Jack Andraka

Here is the full transcript of biotech whiz kid Jack Andraka’s TEDx Talk titled ‘My 3 Cents on Cancer’ at TEDxSanJoseCAWomen conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: My 3 Cents on Cancer by Jack Andraka at TEDxSanJoseCAWomen


I won an International Science Fair, and ever since then, a bunch of people have been asking me, “How on earth could a 15 year old have won an International Science Fair?”

My response, “A ton of hard work and a lot of failures.”

And recently, I’ve developed a novel paper sensor for the detection of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. And the sensor is 168 times faster, over 26,000 times less expensive and over 400 times more sensitive than the current standard of detection. The best part; it costs 3 cents and it takes 5 minutes to run.

Now, you might be wondering, why a 15 year old is interested in pancreatic cancer. Shouldn’t I be watching movies or playing video games? Well, actually, I became interested in pancreatic cancer because a close family friend who was like an uncle to me, passed of pancreatic cancer. And then, what I did is, I began to wonder, “How could someone have gone from a healthy human being who expresses really no symptoms, to a human skeleton in as short as 3 months”.

So, then, I began going to Google, my go-to source for information. And, what I found was shocking. Over 85% of all pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late. That’s two of those people. And, 2% survive. So, that had created an abysmal 5 year survival rate. 5.5%, that’s the worst of any cancer.

So then, I began to wonder, “Why are we so bad at detecting pancreatic cancer? We have to have a better way.” And, what I discovered on Google was that today’s ‘modern medicine’ is a 60 year old technique. That’s older than my dad. It’s grossly inaccurate and misses 30% of all pancreatic cancers. In addition, it’s pricey. It costs $800, meaning that’s not an option to lower income patients as it is not covered by your insurance plan. In addition, you have to pay for doctor’s fees and all of these associated fees with that. So, it is a really, really crappy way, to be honest.

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So, I was sure there had to be a better way of detecting pancreatic cancer. So, I went online again and I looked at what an optimal sensor would look like. It would have to be inexpensive, rapid, simple, sensitive, minimally invasive and it would have to be pretty accurate detecting the cancer.

So then, I was pretty sure I could do this, but I wasn’t quite sure how. So then I went online and I realized why we haven’t made such a discovery yet. The reason being is: when you’re trying to detect pancreatic cancer you’re essentially looking for a protein that’s found in your blood when you have these different types of cancers. Now this sounds really straightforward, but it is anything but. What you have is these liters and liters of blood and you are looking for this tiny increase in this tiny amount of protein. And, that’s next to impossible. It is kind of like finding a needle in the stack of nearly identical needles.

So, then I went online again, and I had to first find a potential biomarker, that I was looking for, this one protein. I started with the database of 8,000 different proteins. And, luckily, on the 4,000th try and finally hit gold. I was next to insanity at that point. But, it is called mesothelin. Mesothelin is just your ordinary run of the mill type of protein, unless you have pancreatic, ovarian, or lung cancer, in which case, it is found at these greatly increased levels.

Also, the key here is that this mesothelin, it’s found in the earliest stages of the cancer when the survival rates are close to 100 percent. So, if you can detect this protein, then you can potentially detect pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer all in their earlier stages. So then, I had to actually figure out how to detect this protein. That was the big question here. So, it came in the most unlikely of places, my high school biology class — the absolute stifler of innovation.

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So, I kind of snuck in this research paper on carbon nanotubes, and I was reading it under my desk. You might be wondering, “What on Earth is a carbon nanotube?” And, it’s actually these really cool things. These long cylindrical pipes that are one 50,000th of the diameter of your hair. However, they have these incredible properties, like they conduct electricity better than silver and copper, but also they just have these incredible properties. They’re kind of like superheroes in the science, if you are a scientist.

So then what happened, is we are learning in biology classes, we’re supposed to be paying attention to — antibodies. Antibody is essentially like a lock and key. It binds specifically to only one specific protein. In this case, the mesothelin protein.

So then, I began rolling around this idea: How would I connect my carbon nanotubes to what I was supposed to be paying attention to. And then, it hit me. I could essentially lace these nanotubes with the antibody and it would have a network that would react only with that specific protein. And in this case, it generates an electrical response that was large enough to measure with the Home Depot ohmmeter that costs 50 dollars.

So then, I would have to get a lab space since I can’t do cancer research on my kitchen table. What I did is, I emailed essentially anyone that has anything to do with pancreatic cancer. What I included was like my procedure, my timeline, budget, really entire grant proposal. Like 200 people is how many have responded to. I was flying through these emails. I got 199 rejections and 1 maybe. So, finally, after 3 months, I hunted down that maybe professor and finally I landed a meeting with him. Getting into a lab is not as simple as it’s cracked up to be. Because what you have to do is, I went through this huge interview. It was just an interrogation and professor is pulling in more, more, more of these experts in my field. Eventually, I get through all these questions, I guessed on a few of them.

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I land a lab space I needed. At first, nothing was working. At first, nothing was working. I expected I’d waltz into that lab, it would magically work, in like, the first week. Psych! It actually took 7 months. Cancer research isn’t that easy.

So, finally after those 7 months, I finally had one small paper sensor that could detect pancreatic cancer with 100 percent accuracy. It was tested in blind studies with humans. Then, through this, I learned one really important lesson, that through the Internet anything is possible. You don’t have to be a professor with multiple degrees to have your ideas valued, regardless of your age, your gender, your ethnicity, whatever. It is just your ideas.

So what’s really important to me, what I find really important on the Internet is that instead of posting duckface pictures of yourself, or taking pictures of your food and posting them on Instagram, you could be changing the world. I did all of my research on Google and Wikipedia.

One more thing is that a bunch of people are now saying, that the world is kind of going like the U.S. is driving the world into like this freefall and we’re going to like just explode. But, in my opinion, we are just getting started. You see, what happened is — in the 1970s at the Olympics all these records had been broken. Do you want to know why?

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