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:
While a cure for cancer is still beyond medical science, improvements in how we diagnose and treat the disease are being made every day. These range from early detection, which makes all the difference in preventing the spread of the disease; to less-invasive treatments, which makes for a kinder, gentler recovery. By combining better medicine with cost-saving measures, accessibility is also a possibility.
When it comes to better diagnostics, the aim is to find ways to detect cancer without harmful and expensive scans or exploratory surgery. An alternative is a litmus test, like the one invented by Jack Andraka to detect pancreatic cancer. His method, which was unveiled at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), won him the top prize due to the fact that it’s 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests and 1/26,000th the cost of regular tests.
Since that time, Jack and his research group (Generation Z), have been joined by such institutions as MIT, which recently unveiled a pee stick test to detect cancer. In research published late last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, MIT Professor Sangeeta Bhatia reported that she and her team developed paper test strips using the same technology behind in-home pregnancy tests, ones which were able to detect colon tumors in mice.
The test strips work in conjunction with an injection of iron oxide nanoparticles, like those used as MRI contrast agents, that congregate at tumor sites in the body. Once there, enzymes known as matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), which cancer cells use to invade healthy tissue, break up the nanoparticles, which then pass out through the patient’s urine. Antibodies on the test strip grab them, causing gold nanoparticles to create a red color indicating the presence of the tumor.
According to Bhatia, the technology is likely to make a big splash in developing countries where complicated and expensive medical tests are a rarity. Closer to home, the technology is also sure to be of significant use in outpatient clinics and other decentralized health settings. As Bhatia said in a press release:
For the developing world, we thought it would be exciting to adapt (the technology) to a paper test that could be performed on unprocessed samples in a rural setting, without the need for any specialized equipment. The simple readout could even be transmitted to a remote caregiver by a picture on a mobile phone.
To help Bhatia and her research team to bring her idea to fruition, MIT has given her and her team a grant from the university’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The purpose of the grant is to help the researchers develop a startup that could execute the necessary clinical trials and bring the technology to market. And now, Bhatia and her team are working on expanding the test to detect breast, prostate cancers, and all other types of cancer.
In a separate but related story, researchers are also working towards a diagnostic methods that do not rely on radiation. While traditional radiation scanners like PET and CT are good at finding cancer, they expose patients to radiation that can create a catch-22 situation where cancer can be induced later in life, especially for younger patients. By potentially inducing cancer in young people, it increases the likelihood that they will have to be exposed to more radiation down the line.
The good news is that scientists have managed to reduce radiation exposure over the past several years without sacrificing image quality. But thanks to ongoing work at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, the Stanford School of Medicine, and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, there’s a potential alternative that involves combining MRI scans with a contrast agent, similar to the one Prof. Bhatia and her MIT group use in their peestick test.
According to a report published in the journal The Lancet Oncology, the researchers claimed that the new MRI approach found 158 tumors in twenty-two 8 to 33-year-olds, compared with 163 found using the traditional PET and CT scan combo. And since MRIs use radio waves instead of radiation, the scans themselves have no side effects. While the study is small, the positive findings are a step toward wider-spread testing to determine the effectiveness and safety of the new method.
The next step in testing this method will be to study the approach on more children and investigate how it might work in adults. The researchers say physicians are already launching a study of the technique in at least six major children’s hospitals throughout the country. And because the cost of each method could be roughly the same, if the MRI approach proves just as effective yet safer, radiation-free cancer scans are likely to be the way of the future.
And last, but not least, there’s a revolutionary new treatment pioneered by researchers at Georgia Tech that relies on engineered artificial pathways to lure malignant cells to their death. This treatment is designed to address brain tumors – aka. Glioblastoma multiform cancer (GBM) – which are particularly insidious because they spread through the brain by sliding along blood vessels and nerve passageways (of which the brain has no shortage of!)
This capacity for expansion means that sometimes tumors developed in parts of the brain where surgery is extremely difficult – if not impossible – or that even if the bulk of a tumor can be removed, chances are good its tendrils would still exist throughout the brain. That is where the technique developed by scientists at Georgia Tech comes in, which involves creating artificial pathways along which cancer can travel to either more operable areas or even to a deadly drug located in a gel outside the body.
According to Ravi Bellamkonda, lead investigator and chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University:
[T]he cancer cells normally latch onto … natural structures and ride them like a monorail to other parts of the brain. By providing an attractive alternative fiber, we can efficiently move the tumors along a different path to a destination that we choose.
The procedure was reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature Materials. It involved Bellamkonda and his team implanting nanofibers about half the size of a human hair in rat brains where GBMs were growing. The fibers were made from a polycaprolactone (PCL) polymer surrounded by a polyurethane carrier and mimicked the contours of the nerves and blood vessels cancer cells like to use as a biological route.
One end of a fiber was implanted into the tumor inside the brain and the other into a gel containing the drug cyclopamine (which kills cancer cells) outside the brain. After 18 days, enough tumor cells had migrated along the fiber into the gel to shrink the tumor size 93 percent. Not only does Bellamkonda think his technique could be used to relocate and/or destroy cancers, he says he believes it could be used to help people live with certain inoperable cancers as a chronic condition.
In a recent statement, Bellakomba had this to say about the new method and the benefits its offers patients:
If we can provide cancer an escape valve of these fibers, that may provide a way of maintaining slow-growing tumors such that, while they may be inoperable, people could live with the cancers because they are not growing. Perhaps with ideas like this, we may be able to live with cancer just as we live with diabetes or high blood pressure.
Many of today’s methods for treating cancer focus on using drugs to kill tumors. The Georgia Tech team’s approach was engineering-driven and allows cancer to be treated with a device rather than with chemicals, potentially saving the patient many debilitating side effects. Part of the innovation in the technique is that it’s actually easier for tumors to move along the nanofibers than it is for them to take their normal routes, which require significant enzyme secretion as they invade healthy tissue.
Anjana Jain, the primary author of the study, was also principally responsible for the design of the nanofiber technique. After doing her graduate work on biomaterials used for spinal cord regeneration, she found herself working in Bellamkonda’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow and came up with the idea of routing materials using engineered materials. In a recent statement, she said the following of her idea:
Our idea was to give the tumor cells a path of least resistance, one that resembles the natural structures in the brain, but is attractive because it does not require the cancer cells to expend any more energy.
Extensive testing, which could take up to 10 years, still needs to be conducted before this technology can be approved for use in human patients. In the meantime, Bellamkonda and his team will be working towards using this technology to lure other cancers that like to travel along nerves and blood vessels. With all the advances being made in diagnostics, treatments, and the likelihood of a cure being found in the near future, the 21st century is likely to be the era where cancer becomes history.
Every year, IT giant Google holds an online competition open to students aged 13-18 from around the globe to come up with new and challenging scientific ideas. And this year, one the winners just happens to hail from my hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. Her name is Ann Makosinki, a 15 year old high school student who invented a way to power a flashlight using only the warmth of your hand.
She claimed a trophy made of Lego for the 15-16 age category at an awards gala that was held on Monday, Sept. 23rd. Her prizes were a $25,000 scholarship and a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” from either CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), LEGO or Google. Quite the impressive accomplishment for a 11th grader, but then again, Makosinki has been a scientist at heart ever since she was a little kid.
For starters, when other children were playing with toy cars and dolls, she busied herself with transistors and microcircuits. What’s more, by Grade 6, she began submitting projects to science fairs and began showing an interest in alternative energy. Still, Makosinki was surprised to be getting an award, given her competition. As she said:
I’m in shock, I’m in shock. It’s actually kind of embarrassing because I didn’t even change [before the awards ceremony]. I didn’t even comb my hair or anything. I must have looked like an absolute mess on stage because I didn’t expect to go up at all.
As for the invention itself, it is easy to see why she won. Basically, it is an LED flashlight that relies on the thermoelectric effect to generate electricity when held. This is done through a series of devices that are known as Peltier tiles, which produce electricity when heated on one side and cooled on the other. The tiles are fixed to the outside of the flashlight while the tube itself is hollow.
When held one side of the Peltier tiles are heated by the warmth of the person’s hand, air flowing through the hollow tube helps keep the other side cool. This combination of body heat and air cooling allows enough power to be generated to maintain a steady beam of light for 20 minutes. And all without the need for batteries and the resulting ewaste when they go dead.
Makosinki came up with the idea while researching different forms of alternative energy a few years ago. Already, she had experimented with Peltier tiles for her Grade 7 science fair project. While researching her project, she thought of them again as a way to potentially capture the thermal energy produced by the human body. After doing some calculations, she found that the amount of energy produced by a person’s hand was theoretically sufficient to power an LED light.
However, putting it into practice proved somewhat more difficult. After buying some Peltier tiles on eBay, she tested them and found that while they generated more than enough power, the voltage produced was only a fraction of what she needed. She rectified this problem after doing some further research, where she discovered that the addition of transformers could be used to boost the voltage.
She spent months doing research on the internet, experimenting with different circuits and even building her own transformers, which still didn’t provide enough voltage. In the end, she came across an article on the web about energy harvesting that suggested an affordable circuit that would provide the voltage she needed when used with a recommended transformer. Finally, the circuit worked.
Makosinski admitted there were points in the experiment when she thought it would never work. But as she said:
You just kind of have to keep going. This took quite awhile ’cause I had to do it during the school year as well and I had homework, plays, whatever that I was also doing.
After making it to the Google Science Fair, she and her colleagues spent the day presenting at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. Here, the 15 judges – which included scientists from a variety of fields, science journalists, an astronaut, and a former Google Science Fair winner – witnessed their creations and tried to determine which held the most promise.
The other winners included Viney Kumar, an Australia student who captured the 13-14 age category for an Android app that warns drivers of an approaching emergency vehicle more than a minute in advance, in order to help clear a path for it. And then there was Elif Bilgin of Turkey, a 16-year old who took home the Scientific American Science in Action Prize and the Voter’s Choice Award for inventing a way to make plastic from banana peels.
The Grand Prize for the 17-18 age category went to Eric Chen, a 17 year old student from San Diego who is researching a new kind of anti-flu medicine using a combination of computer modelling and biological studies. He received the top prize of a $50,000 scholarship and a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands.
Alas, Makosinki felt the best part of the competition was getting to meet the other finalists in person at last.
It’s just so inspiring to see other people who are kind of like me and kind of want to make a difference in the community not just by talking about it but by actually doing stuff.
What’s next for the young inventor? Personally, I hope Makosinki and her fellow prize winners will be forming their own research group and looking for new and exciting ways to come up with renewable energy, recycling, vaccinations, and electronics. What do you think Makonsinky, Kumar, Bilgin, Chen? That’s what Andraka and his fellow finalists did after winning ISEF 2012, and they seem to be doing pretty good. So… hintedy, hint hint!
And be sure to enjoy this video of Ann Makosinki showing off her invention, courtesy of Technexo:
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:
The name Jack Andraka is already one that researchers and medical practitioners are familiar with. Roughly a year ago, the 16-year old boy developed a litmus test that was capable of detecting pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal forms of the disease and one of the most difficult to treat. And given that his method was 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests and 1/26,000th the cost, it’s title wonder why he’s considered something of a wonder kid.
Well, it seems boy genius is at it again! Shortly after receiving first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), Andraka assembled a crack team of young scientists and began working on a handheld, non-invasive device that could help detect cancer early on. Much like Scanadu, the company that recently release a sensor for testing vitals, Andraka and his team were looking to create a genuine tricorder-like device.
And while their group – known as Generation Z and which was formed from the other 2012 finalists – is working towards such a device, Andraka presented his own concept at this year’s ISEF. Apparently, what he built is modeled on a tradition raman spectrometer – a device that can be used to detect explosives, environmental contaminants, and cancer in the human body.
A conventional raman spectrometer is extremely delicate, can be as large as a small car, and cost up to $100,000. By contrast, the one designed by Andraka costs only $15 and is the size of a cell phone. According to Andraka, a raman spectrometer works by “[shooting] a powerful laser at a sample and tells the exact chemical composition.” Such a device also relies on a liquid nitrogen cooled photodector to examine the chemical composition of whatever material is currently being examined.
Those powerful lasers alone can cost up to $40,000, so Andraka swapped out the big lasers for an off-the-shelf laser pointer and replaced the photodetector with an iPhone camera. According to Andraka, the results are comparable, at a fraction of the size and, more importantly, the cost. So once more, the boy genius has presented medical science with a cheap, effective means of early detection, something which could save lives and millions in health care costs.
Andraka admits that this device was pretty much all his, but he plans to incorporate it into the tricorder design that he and his colleagues in Generation Z are developing. Once realized, the resulting device will be competing for the Tricorder X Prize – a ten million dollar grant that is given to any entrant that can create a handheld mobile platform that can diagnose 15 diseases across 30 patients in just three days.
But of course, they will have some stiff competition, not the least of which will come from Scanadu, which just happens to have the backing of NASA’s Ames Center. But then again, the world loves an underdog. And when it comes to medical devices, cancer, and other diseases of the body, its clear that Andraka and his peers are just getting started!
And be sure to check out this video with highlights from the 2013 ISEF: