Big Data Key to Disease Detection Quest

15-year-old cancer researcher Jack Andraka teaming with award-winning high school scientists to develop smartphone-sized device for disease diagnosis.

If healthcare is to become the next space race, it will require emphatic, big idea chasing wunderkinds like Jack Andraka. The 15-year-old has been called the Thomas Edition of our age, a science prodigy and genius ahead of his time for inventing a faster, cheaper, more reliable way to detect pancreatic cancer. Now he is teaming with two other award-winning teens to develop a disease diagnosis device the size of a smartphone and using big data to do it.

Jack Andraka at TEDx San Jose

Jack Andraka said the Internet and computing technologies made it possible for him to discover a new way of detecting pancreatic cancer in his talk at the TEDx SanJose event in December.

The pancreatic cancer sensor he developed won him the Gordon E. Moore Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and a Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award. His patent-pending invention has led to talks with leading biotech companies about productizing his invention, which can be used to detect other diseases as well.

“If a 15-year old who didn’t even know he had a pancreas can develop a sensor for pancreatic cancer that costs 3 cents and takes 5 minutes to run, imagine what those additional 3.5 billion people and just about anyone can do,” Andraka said in an interview following his speech at the recent TEDx SanJose event. Intel hosted the event at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States and the eighth worldwide, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The pancreas remains difficult to image and symptoms aren’t typically detected until it’s too late. Andraka is bent on saving the estimated 40,000 people who die each year from the disease, and he has contemporaries and technology to help him do it.

Andraka created a dipstick sensor using diabetic test paper to detect mesothelin, a protein associated with pancreatic cancer, in blood or urine. It has achieved 90 percent accuracy in tests and proved to be 28 times faster, 28 times less expensive and over 100 times more sensitive than current tests.

For Andraka, the technologies he relied upon to develop his cancer sensor are essential, yet as ubiquitous as air.

“I did all of my research using Google and Wikipedia,” he said. “With the Internet, anything’s possible. You don’t need to have a master’s or multiple degrees to have your ideas valued. Regardless of your age, gender, ethnicity or whatever, it’s your ideas that matter.”

With strong support from his parents and science whiz older brother, the Crownsville, Md. resident chased his idea into a world of antibodies, proteins and tiny carbon nanotubes that measure 1/50,000 the diameter of a human hair. Along the way, he collected mountains of data and had to find ways to analyze it.

Jack Andraka 2012 ISEF winner

After winning first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his patent-pending pancreatic cancer detector, Jack Andraka has teamed up with other high school scientists to compete in the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize.

“To handle big data, I used a statistics program and crunched all the numbers into graphs that I could understand,” he said. “Initially, I used a $50 ohmmeter from Home Depot, snatched some sewing needles from Mom and used them as electrodes, then had some alligator clips from Radio Shack to build a ragtag apparatus that could detect electrical signals in my strips. Data was plugged into my computer, then I crunched it.”

To take his disease detection work to yet another level, Andraka is collaborating with other bright, young minds. He is teaming up with two 17-year-olds: Nick Scheffer, the young Bill Gates look-alike “microsearch” expert who placed second in this year’s ISEF event, and Brittany Wenger, the winner of Google’s International Science Fair who specializes in image recognition. Together, they are working to develop a device the size of a smartphone that can be used to scan and diagnose any disease. It’s something Andraka believes can win the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize in the next few years.

The high schoolers are competing against 235 other teams, which are usually comprised of adults from large corporations, Andraka said. To win, his team will have to accurately diagnose a set of diseases without the help of healthcare experts or facilities, and their device will need to deliver an excellent user experience.

Andraka sees the work he and his collaborators are doing as part of a wave of scientific breakthroughs that he believes the Internet and technology advancements will spur over the next decade.

“In the 1970s, a lot of Olympic records were being broken because the games opened up to a bunch more counties, bringing millions of more people into the completion,” Andraka said. “That’s what’s happening today with science as the Internet opens up to 3.5 billion more people around the world, giving them the ability to break the records of science.”

SOURCE: Intel Free Press