Intel Science Fair winner detects pancreatic cancer early, cheaply

High school freshman Jack Andraka, seen here in the middle after winning the Intel ISEF, will receive $75,000 in scholarship funds and $12,000 in cash for his project, which can detect cancer in its early stages.

Kai Ryssdal: Ahhh, the high school science fair. For most of us, it was no more than your baking soda volcano.

But for the big one -- the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair -- the competition is fierce. And the prizes are big: $75,000 in scholarship money to the winner and about $12,000 in cash.

The grand prize this year went to Jack Andraka, high school freshman from Crownsville, Md. It's only a little bit of a stretch to say he's trying to cure cancer by finding it early.

Hey Jack, how are you?

Jack Andraka: Great, how about you?

Ryssdal: I'm all right, thanks. So listen, tell me about this project. It's cancer detection sort of on the cheap, right? Not really expensive.

Andraka: Yeah. I basically developed a paper sensor that can detect pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer before they become invasive -- for as little as 3 cents and five minutes.

Ryssdal: OK, no seriously, how'd you do this? Because really, the best minds we have been working on this for decades.

Andraka: So, basically there are these antibodies which capture a specific protein that's found in your blood, because it becomes elevated when you have those cancers. And so then, when you have blood that has those elevated levels, it'll change the conductivity of my paper sensor, and basically I was just measuring that. And it can detect pancreatic cancer.

Ryssdal: Oh my god. I just understood nothing of what you just said. I have to tell you that, because I didn't do really well in science in school. How is this better than what we have now, though?

Andraka: So actually, the current gold standard for protein detection in your blood, it's called Elisa. My test is 168 times faster, over 26,000 times less expensive, and over 400 times more sensitive. Also, it's more accurate -- it's nearly 100 percent accurate in its diagnosis. Then also, it's portable and doesn't required specialized training.

Ryssdal: That's kind of amazing. Seriously, don't you think?

Andraka: Yeah, it was pretty cool to see that my sensor defeated the better one.

Ryssdal: Have biotechnology firms come a-knocking yet? I mean, they must have.

Andraka: Yeah. Actually, I did file a patent for this, and right now, me and the Johns Hopkins University team of patent lawyers, they're helping me straighten out a bit of kinks in my patent. And also, we've already been contacted by two biotechnology firms -- one in San Diego called Audit Micro and one called Bio-Rad. Pretty exciting.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I bet. Now, what are you going to do like when you're a sophomore in high school, man? Because if ninth grade is this good for you?

Andraka: Well, I'm going to try and go to Intel ISEF -- that's the science fair I just won -- again, but I just really love doing science. And then also I'm trying to start a business with this.

Ryssdal: Oh well see, there you go, right? Now, how's that going?

Andraka: So actually, I'm right now working on another project, but keeping that a bit under wraps.

Ryssdal: Have you always been a science kid?

Andraka: Yes. Ever since age 3, my parents really fostered my curiosity. They had us look up stuff, they didn't just tell us; they had us find out stuff through experiments; stuff like that. Because I have an older brother, he's two years older than me, so we would just do these amazing scientific experiments. Right now, he has taken over the basement with his chemistry experiments.

Ryssdal: So he'll win next year, right?

Andraka: Eh, he went for the past two years. He didn't go this year, though.

Ryssdal: So you're the head science kid in the family?

Andraka: You could say that.

Ryssdal: There you go. Come on, own it, man, you've got to own it. Jack Andraka, he just won the International Science and Engineering Fair. It's the Intel ISEF, as he said. Jack, thanks a lot.

Andraka: Thanks so much.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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