If you believe, as Whitney Houston once did, that children are our future, you’ll be gratified by the work of Jack Andraka, age 15.
Describing him as a kid with a passion for science is an understatement on par with calling Mr. Peabody a cartoon dog.
Not that I’ve got a crystal ball or anything, but let’s just say if you or your loved one come down with pancreatic cancer a decade from now, you’ll be very glad this young man—the 2012 grand prize winner of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, as well as the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award—didn’t squander his freshman year’s extracurricular hours on sports and glee club.
Instead, he became the “cancer paper boy.” His mentor, Johns Hopkins pathologist and researcher, Anirban Maitra floats comparisons to Edison. As Morgan Spurlock points out in his show documentary on Andraka — You Don’t Know Jack (above) — many of Einstein’s discoveries were made before he stuck his tongue out beneath that white mane.
Spurred on in part by the death of a family friend, Jack, then 14, developed an inexpensive procedure that can diagnose the presence of the notoriously stealthy cancer of the pancreas while treatment is still an option. Through trial and error, he developed an absorbent filter paper dipstick that helps measure the electrical signal of a nanotube network laced with antibodies specific to the protein mesothelin, after a sixth of a drop of blood has been introduced.
As a theater major, I fear I may not be summarizing the science with sufficient accuracy. The Smithsonian published an article describing Jack’s process in detail. While I don’t know much about pancreatic function, cancerous or otherwise, I do know enough to have deep respect for Jack’s supportive parents, and Johns Hopkins University, the only institution (of 200 contacted) to respond in the affirmative when the then-14-year -old got in touch, seeking lab space. (Hosting the Center for Talented Youth may have primed them for such queries.) If this science thing doesn’t work out, Jack could totally make a go of it as a publicist. He’s got the tenacity.
Again, it’ll take another ten years or so before the fruits of Jack’s labors can be part of mainstream medical practice, but it does give one hope for the future. Some paper boy!
This little Spurlock film will be added to the Documentary section of our collection of Free Movies Online.
Ayun Halliday is an author and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky, an award-winning, handwritten zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday