Boy Wonder: Jack Andraka

Meet Jack Andraka, a HS student who at age 15 developed a test that might save countless lives by detecting early pancreatic cancer

The following script is from "Boy Wonder" which aired on Oct. 13, 2013. The correspondent is Morley Safer. Katy Textor, producer.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive and deadly cancers, in part because often by the time it's diagnosed the disease has spread to other parts of the body. So when news broke last year that a test had been developed that might detect early pancreatic cancer, the research world not only took notice, it went into shock -- for the test hadn't been developed by some renowned cancer research institute, but by a boy wonder, a 15-year-old high school freshman named Jack Andraka. He then convinced an eminent cancer researcher to let him use his lab to develop his theory, all before he even had a license to drive. And while the test must undergo years of clinical trials, the biotech industry has already beaten a path to Jack's door.

To learn more about pancreatic cancer, go to Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

This is Jack Andraka as he beats out 1,500 contestants and wins the grand prize at the Intel International Science Fair with his invention. Like a modern day Rocky, this self-described science geek took the stage and $100,000 in prize money. Pure, unadulterated, adolescent joy.

Morley Safer: When you won the Intel Award-- your reaction went viral on the Internet, correct?

Jack Andraka: Yes, yes, it did.

Morley Safer: It's a no-joke award.

Jack Andraka: I wasn't expecting any awards there. Then when I won, I was just flabbergasted. I was, like, freaking out. I was just like, "What?"

Morley Safer: Yes, you were.

Jack Andraka: "Me?"

Jack Andraka's journey from suburban Baltimore high school freshman to cancer researcher began at age 14 when a family friend died of pancreatic cancer. Shocked that there is no reliable early test for the disease, Jack decided he would develop one. He began probing the Internet for everything he could find about pancreatic cancer biomarkers. He read research articles during class and in the middle of biology while stealthily reading a medical journal he says inspiration hit. The teacher was not amused.

Jack Andraka: I swear, she has, like, eyes on the back of her head or something. She sees me. And she storms up to my desk and is like, "Mr. Andraka, what is this?" and, like, snatches it out of my hand.

Morley Safer: As if you had Playboy Magazine right?

Jack Andraka: Yeah, yeah. I'm just like-- it was just a science article. Shouldn't this be a good thing?

When he told his parents Steve and Jane Andraka about his project they weren't exactly encouraging.

Steve Andraka: My reaction wasn't a good one. I sa-- I s-- "Jack, isn't that a little far-fetched?

Jane Andraka: And I know that when you're 14 you can't just run out and get a lab. A lot of people, you know, are like, "We don't train middle schoolers."

But Jack decided to find one that did. Over the course of four months he prepared a test protocol for his theory and sent it out to 200 cancer researchers.

Jack Andraka: I essentially had to send them my budget, my procedure, my timeline and materials list. And I actually got 199 rejections out of those. Some professors ripped apart my procedure completely. But one professor, Dr. Anirban Maitra, finally said yes.

Morley Safer: An encouraging yes?

Jack Andraka: It was like, "This idea might work." And he starts interrogating me kind of firing questions, trying to sink my procedure in a way. But I answered all of them.

Dr. Anirban Maitra was a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins University and now heads pancreatic cancer research at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He says his curiosity was piqued by Jack's proposal.

Dr. Anirban Maitra: Well, it's not every day that you get an email from a 15 year old that comes with a detailed protocol with methods and supplies and what pitfalls you might run into, and I said, "Maybe I'll get you a corner in my lab and we'll have one of the post doctoral fellows supervising you. Let's see where all this all goes."

For the next seven months after school and on weekends, Jack's mother would drop him off at the lab where he learned basic lab techniques and worked on developing his cancer test.

Jack Andraka: Finally, one day in March, I realized this was actually working. Like, it was working amazingly. Because it was passing all of these preliminary tests. And I run out and pretty much, like, screaming around the lab. I finally go out and rush into my mom's car. And, like, me and her are screaming in the car. And then, of course, I have school the next day.

Jack's test detects an unusually high level of mesothelin, a protein that the body produces in pancreatic cancer's early -- and most treatable -- stage.

Morley Safer: What exactly are you doing now?

Jack Andraka: So essentially what this is, is it's one of my strips and what you do is you first get an original measurement of how the electricity flows across it.

The paper strip is coated with a carbon substance that attracts mesothelin. It is placed in an apparatus that Jack built in his parents' garage.

Jack Andraka: And I'm just taking out one single drop of blood here.

A high level of mesothelin in a patient's blood sample may indicate the first stages of pancreatic cancer.

Jack Andraka: See how it's increased? It's increased by about two times here. And so what that means is that there's a really high level of this one protein there and that signals the presence of pancreatic cancer for me.

While years of clinical trials must be done, there is no FDA approved test that can reliably measure mesothelin. Dr. Maitra says a test of this kind that could detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stage could save thousands of lives.

Dr. Anirban Maitra: He did hone into the most important missing aspect in terms of pancreatic cancer, which is we don't really have good early detection. There is nothing like a PSA test or a colonoscopy or a mammogram that you can get for the pancreas at this point in time. So by the time the majority of patients present, they already have tumor that has spread outside the pancreas. And those patients typically don't do very well.

He says the test -- which costs Jack three cents a strip to make -- is remarkably elegant in its simplicity.

Morley Safer: It's remarkable what you've achieved and kind of what you've come up with. It's no question. Have the brain men come to talk to you and want to figure you out?

Jack Andraka: No, actually, no one has approached me to do, like, an autopsy of my brain yet. But--

Morley Safer: --a scan, shall we say.

Jack Andraka: A scan. But, like, maybe later on an autopsy. But really I don't think it's that I'm really smart. I mean, I know people that are way smarter than me. You can be a genius, but if you don't have the creativity to put that knowledge to use, then you just have a bunch of knowledge and nothing else. I mean, like, then you're just as good as my smartphone.

His parents say he has been obsessed with science since he was a toddler, conducting experiments even as a 3- year-old. School for him was so easy his parents tried to keep him engaged by encouraging science projects at home.

Jack Andraka: My family isn't the typical family. Like, we're-- instead of, like, talking about football, we have, like, all these science magazines all scattered throughout our house. And we talk about them at dinner.

After Jack decided to cultivate E. coli just for the fun of it on the kitchen stove, his parents insisted that he and his older brother, Luke, use the basement as their lab. Their parents believe the less they know about what goes on down there the better.

Morley Safer: I gather the rule of the house is don't burn down the house and don't kill yourself?

Steve Andraka: Pretty much. It's don't blow up the house. I want to come home and have a place to live.

Morley Safer: What do they do down there?

Jane Andraka: I don't really know 'cause I don't go down there much.

And they may have reason for concern.

Morley Safer: Clearly neatness does not count.

Last year, Luke cooked up some nitroglycerin just to see if he could.

Luke Andraka: And I was just interested to see could I make it down here? And it worked.

It also drew the attention of the FBI who they say sent a letter letting them know that their Internet purchasing history had been noted by the feds.

Luke Andraka: They were a little concerned.

Morley Safer: I don't know why I'm laughing.

But these days Jack doesn't have much time for messing in the basement. His test idea has made him a star speaker at medical conferences all over the world.

[Jack Andraka: So, with me I just used Google and Wikipedia to find a new way to attack pancreatic cancer. At the beginning of this I didn't even know I had a pancreas. So if I could do that...(laughter)]

And he's become a regular at the White House -- four visits this year alone.

[President Obama: Where's Jack? There he is...Jack stand up.]

Morley Safer: You've also become a heavy-duty celebrity?

Jack Andraka: It's pretty insane. I mean, you see Barack Obama.

Morley Safer: President Barack Obama.

Jack Andraka: Yeah, President Barack Obama. I'm just like, "Hello, Mr. President." And then, "Hello, First Lady." It's just like it's crazy.

In the past year he has spoken in Canada, Italy, Australia, Greece, the United Nations and so far four trips to England.

[Jack Andraka in London: Earlier this year...]

Including this address he gave to the renowned Royal Society of Medicine about his test and the problems with current cancer diagnostics.

[Jack Andraka: I type this into the Internet...]

This 15-year-old has all the confidence of a physician.

Jack Andraka: And what it comes up with is I could be going through cocaine withdrawal, I have cancer or I could be pregnant. So...

A stand-up physician.

[Jack Andraka: So, what I see in the future of medical diagnostics is a shift from the symptom base to more of a diagnostic antibodies based approach, such as a sensor.]

Working the crowds of academics and checking out Cambridge University. No big deal.

Jane Andraka: Could you study here?

Jack Andraka: Yes.

Jack easily maintains a 4.0 GPA in school despite a spotty attendance record.

Morley Safer: You're still in high school, correct?

Jack Andraka: Yeah.

Morley Safer: Why bother?

Jack Andraka: Well, the reason I still bother with high school is because of my mom. She really, like, "You have to do high school and you have to go to college." but they're being kind of lenient with me right now.

Jane Andraka: Who wants tea...?

Jack's family is pretty laid back about his success. Low pressure, and a high sense of humor.

Morley Safer: They say that, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." And it seems that you've been doing all work.

Jack Andraka: Well, I would say all play no work. Because for me going to the lab is pretty much play, I mean, it's the funnest thing ever.

Jack holds the patent on his cancer test and with the help of his patent lawyer is looking to license the technology to a pharmaceutical company in the next few months.

Morley Safer: Now, the actual testing on people or animals, I gather you're not interested in doing that?

Jack Andraka: So I did some preliminary studies, however one thing I don't wanna do is end up as a lab rat. I kind of want to be able to come up with a new idea and then really just move on to the next idea, and have other people do the repetitive trials.

Morley Safer: Well, where does that stand right now?

Jack Andraka: I have enough data to prove that this works, and so now I'm going to give it to the pharmaceutical companies to run it through, like, clinical trials and stuff.

He believes that one day his invention will be in every doctor's office and even on pharmacy shelves. But Dr. Maitra -- who has seen so many promising ideas flame out when it comes to pancreatic cancer --urges caution.

Dr. Anirban Maitra: Pancreatic cancer is a very humbling disease. Every time we think we have a homerun, we barely get to first base. As a test, it is still a very long way off and the reason for that is because such a test cannot be marketed unless it has been validated in large clinical trials. And that cannot be done in a small lab. That cannot be done by a 15-year-old, but that does not detract in any way from the remarkable achievement of this young man. I think he is brilliant.

[Jack Andraka, TED conference: I was sitting in class and suddenly it hit me.]

Between speaking engagements and the occasional appearance at school, Jack is back in the lab working on new diagnostic and environmental tests. And while he now moves in very adult circles, Jack says when it comes to his future he is just like any other lost teenager.

Jack Andraka: I actually have no clue what I want to do when I grow up. I mean hopefully something in science I'll be in. And hopefully I'll be doing work that will help change the world.

Jack has come up with a new diagnostic invention and is using it to compete for the $10 million Tricorder X prize in medical diagnostics next year. All of the 300-plus teams competing are made up of adult researchers, except for one.


  • Morley Safer

    Morley Safer’s distinctive style and the broad range of his much-honored work have made him a giant in broadcast journalism and a mainstay of 60 Minutes since 1970.

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