Watch Morgan Spurlock’s Documentary on the 15-Year-Old Who Invented a New Way to Detect Early Stage Pancreatic Cancer

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Micro­scop­ic Bat­tle­field: Watch as a Killer T Cell Attacks a Can­cer Cell

Can­cer Patients’ Extreme Makeovers Let Them To For­get Their Ill­ness ‘If Only For A Sec­ond’

Come­di­an Tig Notaro’s “Tru­ly Great” Can­cer Stand-up Set Now Avail­able on Louis C.K.’s Web­site

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author and  Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky, an award-win­ning, hand­writ­ten zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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