Jack Andraka is the smartest kid in science class and probably in his entire high school. But the teen who may have invented an early test for pancreatic cancer -- an organ he says he didn't even know he had when he began his quest -- says creativity rather than brains played the bigger role in his discovery. Morley Safer interviews Andraka about his remarkable work on one of the deadliest cancers for a story to be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Andraka is a boisterous teen whose shocked, unrestrained reaction to his invention winning the grand prize at the Intel International Science Fair went viral. He was almost as shocked to learn there was no early test for pancreatic cancer, the disease that had taken the life of a family friend. "I just used Google and Wikipedia to find a new way to attack pancreatic cancer," he tells Safer. "At the beginning of this, I didn't even know I had a pancreas." He was 14.
His research, both online and in printed science journals, led him to a protein called mesothelin that was associated with the presence of the disease. He then had to invent a process for detecting this "biomarker" in a patient's blood. It was a creative process that he says ultimately allowed him to invent a carbon-coated strip that, when placed in a machine he built, can detect an increased presence of mesothelin.
The invention must first undergo several big clinical trials before its reliability is proven, but scientists still think his idea was brilliant. The teen scientist says it came about not from pure brainpower alone, but more importantly, creativity. "I don't think that it's that I am really smart...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," says Andraka.
And Andraka couldn't have come this far with his invention if it weren't for one influential oncologist who took a chance on a teenage idea and gave him the lab space and supervision he needed. There were 199 rejections. "Some professors ripped apart my procedure completely. But one professor, Dr. Anirban Maitra, finally said yes." Dr. Maitra, formerly of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, now leads research into pancreatic cancer at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Andraka's test is now patented and he hopes to sell it to a pharmaceutical company , which will then put it through the necessary clinical trials. Dr. Maitra is happy he gave Andraka the chance to shine; he just urges caution at this early stage. "Pancreatic cancer is a very humbling disease...as a test, it's still a very long way off...But that does not detract in any way from the remarkable achievement of this young man. I think he is brilliant."
Meanwhile, Andraka tells his story to scientists the world over at medical conferences and he has become quite popular in adult circles, including at the White House. But he's still just a 16-year-old kid, and he knows it. "Yeah, President Barack Obama...I'm just like, 'Hello, Mr. President.' And then, 'Hello, First Lady.' It's just like it's crazy," he tells Safer.