Jack Andraka is at it again! For those who follow this blog (or subscribe to Forbes or watch TED Talks), this young man probably needs no introduction. But if not, then you might not known that Andraka is than the young man who – at 15 years of age – invented an inexpensive litmus test for detecting pancreatic cancer. This invention won him first prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), and was followed up less than a year later with a handheld device that could detect cancer and even explosives.
And now, Andraka is back with yet another invention: a biosensor that can quickly and cheaply detect water contaminants. His microfluidic biosensor, developed with fellow student Chloe Diggs, recently took the $50,000 first prize among high school entrants in the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge. The pair developed their credit card-sized biosensor after learning about water pollution in a high school environmental science class.
As Andraka explained:
We had to figure out how to produce microfluidic [structures] in a classroom setting. We had to come up with new procedures, and we custom-made our own equipment.
According to Andraka, the device can detect six environmental contaminants: mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, glyphosate, and atrazine. It costs a dollar to make and takes 20 minutes to run, making it 200,000 times cheaper and 25 times more efficient than comparable sensors. At this point, make scaled-down versions of expensive sensors that can save lives has become second nature to Andraka. And in each case, he is able to do it in a way that is extremely cost-effective.
For example, Andraka’s litmus test cancer-detector was proven to be 168 times faster than current tests, 90% accurate, and 400 times more sensitive. In addition, his paper test costs 26,000 times less than conventional methods – which include CT scans, MRIs, Ultrasounds, or Cholangiopancreatography. These tests not only involve highly expensive equipment, they are usually administered only after serious symptoms have manifested themselves.
In much the same vein, Andraka’s handheld cancer/explosive detector was manufactured using simple, off-the-shelf and consumer products. Using a simple cell phone case, a laser pointer and an iPhone camera, he was able to craft a device that does the same job as a raman spectrometer, but at a fraction of the size and cost. Whereas a conventional spectrometer is the size of a room and costs around $100,000, his handheld device is the size of a cell phone and costs $15 worth of components.
As part of the project, Diggs and Andraka also developed an inexpensive water filter made out of plastic bottles. Next, they hope to do large-scale testing for their sensor in Maryland, where they live. They also want to develop a cell-phone-based sensor reader that lets users quickly evaluate water quality and post the test results online. Basically, its all part of what is fast becoming the digitization of health and medicine, where the sensors are portable and the information can be uploaded and shared.
This isn’t the only project that Andraka has been working on of late. Along with the two other Intel Science Fair finalists – who came together with him to form Team Gen Z – he’s working on a handheld medical scanner that will be entered in the Tricorder XPrize. This challenge offers $10 million to any laboratory or private inventors that can develop a device that can diagnose 15 diseases in 30 patients over a three-day period. while still being small enough to carry.
For more information on this project and Team Gen Z, check out their website here. And be sure to watch their promotional video for the XPrize competition:
Folks, today I have a rare privilege which I want to share with you. Not that long ago, I reached out to a certain brilliant mind that’s been making waves in the scientific community of late, a young man who – despite his age – has been producing some life saving technologies and leading his own research team. This young man, despite his busy schedule, managed to get back to me quite quickly, and agreed to an interview.
I am of coarse referring to Jack Andraka, a man who’s medical science credentials are already pretty damn impressive. At the age of 16, he developed a litmus test that was capable of detecting pancreatic cancer, one that was 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests, and 1/26,000th the cost. For this accomplishment, he won first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Afterward, he and the other finalists formed their own research group known as Generation Z, which immediately began working towards the creation of a handheld non-invasive device that could help detect cancer early on. In short, they began working on a tricorder-like device, something for which they hope to collect the Tricorder X PRIZE in the near future.
While this project is ongoing, Andraka presented his own concept for a miniature cancer-detecting device at this year’s ISEF. The device is based on a raman spectrometer, but relies on off-the-shelf components like a laser pointer and an iPod camera to scan tissue for cancer cells. And whereas a raman spectrometer is the size of a small car and can cost upwards of $100,000, his fits in the palm of your hand and costs about $15.
Oh, and I should also mention that Jack got to meet President Obama. When I asked what the experience was like, after admitting to being jealous, he told me that the President “loves to talk about science and asks great questions. [And] he has the softest hands!” Who knew? In any case, here’s what he had to tell me about his inspirations, plans, and predictions for the future.
1. What drew you to science and scientific research in the first place?
I have always enjoyed asking questions and thinking about how and why things behave the way they do. The more I learned about a subject, the more deeply I wanted to explore and that led to even more questions. Even when I was 3 I loved building small dams in streams and experimenting with what would happen if I built the dams a certain way and what changes in water flow would occur.
When I entered 6th grade, science fair was required and was very competitive. I was in a charter school and the science fair was really the highlight of the year. Now I did not only love science, but I was highly motivated to do a really good project!
2. You’re litmus test for pancreatic cancer was a major breakthrough. How did you come up with the idea for it?
When I was 14 a close family friend who was like an uncle to me passed away from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was so I turned to every teenager’s go-to source of information, Google and Wikipedia, to learn more. What I found shocked me. The 5 year survival rate is just awful, with only about 5.5% of people diagnosed achieving that time period. One reason is that the disease is relatively asymptomatic and thus is often diagnosed when a patient is in an advanced stage of the cancer. The current methods are expensive and still miss a lot of cancers.
I knew there had to be a better way so I started reading and learning as much as I could. One day in Biology class I was half listening to the teacher talk about antibodies while I was reading a really interesting article on carbon nanotubes. Then it hit me: what if I combined what I was reading (single walled carbon nanotubes) with what I was supposed to be listening to (antibodies) and used that mixture to detect pancreatic cancer.
Of course I had a lot of work left to do so I read and read and thought and thought and finally came up with an idea. I would dip coat strips of inexpensive filter paper with a mixture of single walled carbon nanotubes and the antibody to mesothelin, a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. When mesothelin containing samples were applied the antibody would bind with the mesothelin and push the carbon nanotubes apart, changing the strips’ electrical properties, which I could then measure with an ohm meter borrowed from my dad.
Then I realized I needed a lab (my mom is super patient but I don’t think she’d be willing to have cancer research done in her kitchen!). I wrote up a proposal and sent it out to 200 professors working on anything to do with pancreatic research. Then I sat back waiting for the acceptances to roll in.
I received 199 rejections and one maybe, from Dr Maitra of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I met with him and he was kind enough to give me a tiny budget and a small space in his lab. I had many many setbacks but after 7 months, I finally created a sensor that could detect mesothelin and thus pancreatic cancer for 3 cents in 5 minutes.
3. What was your favorite thing about the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair – aside from winning, of course?
My brother had been a finalist at Intel ISEF and I attended as an observer. I was blown away by the number and quality of the projects there and loved talking to the other finalists. It became my dream to attend Intel ISEF as well. My favorite thing about getting to be a finalist was the sense that I was among kids who were as passionate about math and science as I was and who were curious and creative and who wanted to innovate and push their limits. It felt like I had found my new family! People understood each other and shared ideas and it was so exciting and inspiring to be there with them, sharing my ideas as well!
4. What was the inspiration behind you and your colleagues coming together to start “Generation Z”?
I met some other really interesting kids at Intel ISEF who were making huge advances. I am fascinated by creating ways to diagnose diseases and pollutants. We started talking and the subject of the X Prize came up. We thought it would be a fun challenge to try our hand at it! We figure at the very least we will gain valuable experience working on a team project while learning more about what interests us.
5. How did people react to your smartphone-sized cancer detector at this years ISEF?
Of course people came over to see my project because of my success the previous year. This project was not as finished as it could have been because I was so busy traveling and speaking, but it was great to see all my friends and make new ones and explain what I was aiming for.
6. Your plans for a tricorder that will compete in Tricoder X are currently big news. Anything you can tell us about it at this time?
My team is really coming together. Everyone is working on his/her own piece and then we often Skype and discuss what snags we are running up against or what new ideas we are thinking about.
7. When you hear the words “The Future of Medicine”, what comes to mind? What do you think the future holds?
I believe that the future of medicine is advancing so fast because of the internet and now mobile phones. There are so many new and inexpensive diagnostic methods coming out every month. Hopefully the open access movement will allow everyone access to the knowledge they need to innovate by removing the expensive pay walls that lock away journal articles and the important information they contain from people like me who can’t afford them.
Now kids don’t have to depend on the local library to have a book that may be outdated or unavailable. They can turn to the internet to connect with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), professors, forums and major libraries to gain the information they need to innovate.
8. What are your plans for the future?
I plan to finish my last 2 years of high school and then go to college. I’m not sure which college or exactly what major yet but I can’t wait to get there and learn even more among other people as excited about science as I am.
9. Last question: favorite science-fiction/fantasy/zombie or superhero franchises of all time, and why do you like them?
I like the Iron Man movies the best because the hero is an amazing scientist and engineer and his lab is filled with everything he would ever need. I wonder if Elon Musk has a lab like that in his house!!
Yeah, that sounds about right! I’m betting you and Musk will someday be working together, and I can only pray that a robotic exoskeleton is one of the outcomes! And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that we had a Superhero Challenge here on this site, where we designed our own characters and created a fictional crime-fighting league known as The Revengers! We could use a scientifically-gifted mind in our ranks, just saying…
Thank you for coming by and sharing your time with us Jack! I understood very little of what you said, but I enjoyed hearing about it. I think I speak for us all when I say good luck with all your future endeavors, and may all your research pursuits bear fruit!
It’s no secret that the exponential growth in smartphone use has been paralleled by a similar growth in what they can do. Everyday, new and interesting apps are developed which give people the ability to access new kinds of information, interface with other devices, and even perform a range of scans on themselves. It is this latter two aspect of development which is especially exciting, as it is opening the door to medical applications.
Yes, in addition to temporary tattoos and tiny medimachines that can be monitored from your smartphone or other mobile computing device, there is also a range of apps that allow you to test your eyesight and even conduct ultrasounds on yourself. But perhaps most impressive is the new Smartphone Spectrometer, an iPhone program which will allow users to diagnose their own illnesses.
Consisting of an iPhone cradle, phone and app, this spectrometer costs just $200 and has the same level of diagnostic accuracy as a $50,000 machine, according to Brian Cunningham, a professor at the University of Illinois, who developed it with his students. Using the phone’s camera and a series of optical components in the cradle, the machine detects the light spectrum passing through a liquid sample.
This liquid can consist of urine or blood, any of the body’s natural fluids that are exhibit traces of harmful infection when they are picked up by the body. By comparing the sample’s spectrum to spectrums for target molecules, such as toxins or bacteria, it’s possible to work out how much is in the sample. In short, a quickie diagnosis for the cost of a fancy new phone.
Granted there are limitations at this point. For one, the device is nowhere near as efficient as its industrial counterpart. Whereas automated $50,000 version can process up to 100 samples at a time, the iPhone spectrometer can only do one at a time. But by the time Cunningham and his team plan on commercializing the design, they hope to increase that efficiency by a few magnitudes.
On the plus side, the device is far more portable than any other known spectrometer. Whereas a lab is fixed in place and has to process thousands of samples at any given time, leading to waiting lists, this device can be used just about anywhere. In addition, there’s no loss of accuracy. As Cunningham explained:
We were using the same kits you can use to detect cancer markers, HIV infections, or certain toxins, putting the liquid into our cartridge and measuring it on the phone. We have compared the measurements from full pieces of equipment, and we get the same outcome.
Cunningham is currently filing a patent application and looking for investment. He also has a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an Android version. And while he doesn’t think smartphone-based devices will replace standard spectrometry machines with long track records, and F.D.A approval, he does believe they could enable more testing.
This is especially in countries where government-regulated testing is harder to come by, or where medical facilities are under-supplied or waiting lists are prohibitively long. With diseases like cancer and HIV, early detection can be the difference between life and death, which is a major advantage, according to Cunningham:
In the future, it’ll be possible for someone to monitor themselves without having to go to a hospital. For example, that might be monitoring their cardiac disease or cancer treatment. They could do a simple test at home every day, and all that information could be monitored by their physician without them having to go in.
But of course, the new iPhone is not alone. Many other variations are coming out, such as the PublicLaboratory Mobile Spectrometer, or Androids own version of the Spectral Workbench. And of course, this all calls to mind the miniature spectrometer that Jack Andraka, the 16-year old who invented a low-cost litmus test for pancreatic cancer and who won the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). That’s him in the middle of the picture below:
It’s the age of mobile medicine, my friends. Thanks to miniaturization, nanofabrication, wireless technology, mobile devices, and an almost daily rate of improvement in medical technology, we are entering into an age where early detection and cost-saving devices are making medicine more affordable and accessible.
In addition, all this progress is likely to add up to many lives being saved, especially in developing regions or low-income communities. It’s always encouraging when technological advances have the effect of narrowing the gap between the haves and the have nots, rather than widening it.
And of course, there’s a video of the smartphone spectrometer at work, courtesy of Cunningham’s research team and the University of Illinois: