What better way to celebrate the 4th of July than with news of a young American who may have just saved tens of thousands of lives — per year? His invention could mean effective early screening for pancreatic cancer, a disease for which no early detection test is now available.
Legendary Apple CEO Steve Jobs put pancreatic cancer in the spotlight when he died of it last fall. At the time, news reports talked about scores of complicated treatments and diagnostic approaches.
At a staggering cost (for most of us) of $75,000, Jobs had his entire genome decoded, along with the genome of his cancer, in hopes of finding a cure. He was one of the first people to do so. His bold, experimental effort didn’t save his life. This complex genetic approach does guide the treatment of certain cancers, but not pancreatic treatment at this point.
Now — too late for Steve Jobs — a fifteen-year-old boy may have developed a simple yet effective way to find pancreatic cancer early, when it’s far more treatable. It’s a $3 detection method dreamed up by a Maryland high school student named Jack Andraka. Keep reading because this could be major lifesaver. . .
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One of the hardest cancers to diagnose
As many as 44,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States. The disease tends to spread fast and kill quickly.
The median survival time following diagnosis in only five months. This means half the victims die within five months of learning they have the disease. A paltry 4% of patients make it past the five-year mark, once diagnosed. All told, about 37,000 people are dying of pancreatic cancer every year. Few things are more frightening than being told you have this disease.
Current standard treatments for pancreatic cancer consist mostly of the typical allopathic arsenal — chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. They’re even more ineffective than with other types of cancer because pancreatic cancer is usually advanced by the time a diagnosis is made. At that point, a cure is rarely possible.
Pancreatic cancer has traditionally been tough to diagnose. Most cases surface after a patient reports weight loss, abdominal pain, and chronic itching. Jaundice is another symptom.
Sometimes it takes months before a patient becomes alarmed enough about the symptoms to seek a doctor’s help. And if the doctor recognizes the symptoms as possible pancreatic cancer, an imaging test is usually needed to confirm the diagnosis (meaning a CT scan, an MRI, or an ultrasound).
If the imaging test shows a mass on the pancreas, most doctors order a biopsy. Till now, that’s been the only way to tell for sure if the problem is pancreatic cancer. Early detection hasn’t been possible.
One problem is that the current blood test to detect pancreatic cancer isn’t effective till patients are in the advanced stages of the disease. The test looks for carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and CA 19-9, but CEA and CA levels don’t spike until the game is just about over.
Endoscopic ultrasound has also been used for early detection, but it’s an invasive, expensive procedure. Because of that, it’s only used for those at high risk, such as someone who’s had multiple family members diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
This shaggy-haired high schooler
may have reinvented cancer diagnosis
Fifteen-year old Jack Andraka’s test for pancreatic cancer costs a tiny fraction of current accepted tests. It’s also 168 times faster, 400 times more sensitive, and 100 times more selective than the closest thing now available. And by the way, it’s 26,000 times less expensive — and it doesn’t give false positives or false negatives.
In a single-blinded study of 100 patient samples, Andraka’s test gave a 100 percent correct diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
Most importantly, the test can diagnose the cancer at an early stage, before it spreads.
Andraka calls it the “Non-Invasive Pancreatic Cancer Detection Tool.” Using simple diabetic test paper and a $50 meter from Home Depot, Andraka made a basic dip-stick sensor test. He focused specifically on early-stage pancreatic cancer after losing an uncle to the disease.
To get the test to work, Andraka dipped the filter paper into a solution of carbon nanotubes, which he calls the “superheroes of material science.” More formally, he describes them as “hollow cylinders with walls the thickness of a single atom.”
These nanotube “cylinders” are coated with a specific antibody designed to attach to the protein or virus you’re testing for. In this case, they bind to a protein that’s associated with pancreatic cancer cells.
The electrical meter tells the technician whether there’s been a shift in the space between the nanotubes. This is important, because a shift only happens when the targeted protein or virus comes into contact with the antibodies on the surface of the nanotubes.
Andraka says the test looks for “minute changes in conductivity to detect targeted viruses or antigens faster, cheaper and more accurately than today’s standard diagnostics.”
This could be the beginning of
major changes in cancer diagnosis
For his groundbreaking efforts, Andraka won the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (think of it as the world’s largest high school science research competition). He beat out over 1,500 students from 70 counties.
Andraka says the idea just came to him one day in Biology class. He also points out that blood tests are the only effective way to diagnose this disease in routine screenings. The sensors employed in his test are only three bucks, and up to ten tests can be performed on each strip.
Naturally, he’s being pursued by multiple companies like Quest Diagnostics, all of them extending offers to license or commercialize his invention (which he’s in the process of patenting). Andraka is also slated to speak in front of Congress about the need for funding to support pancreatic cancer research. And soon, he’ll submit his idea for publication with the American Association for Cancer Research.
It’s very possible Andraka’s test will change the way cancer and other fatal diseases are diagnosed. It could even change the way they’re treated. Already, Andraka says his test can be used for early diagnosis of lung and ovarian cancer as well — two more diseases where early diagnosis plays a major role in survival rates.
Just think … all this is possible thanks to the efforts of a shaggy-haired, forward thinking teen who loves science.
Lee Euler Publisher