Saving lives: Teen who invented cancer test to speak in Altoona

Like many young boys, Jack Andraka of Crownsville, Md., liked dinosaurs when he was little and wanted to know more about them.

The 15-year-old once tried to figure out how tall a dinosaur was and “if (a dinosaur) could have looked in my bedroom or how many steps he would take to walk around the block.”

But Andraka left dinosaurs far behind the day he reached the level of adult scientists and researchers and gave new hope to millions of cancer patients. Andraka has developed a paper sensor that can potentially detect some of the most aggressive and deadly cancers including pancreatic, lung and ovarian cancers.

Andraka will speak about his discovery April 5 at Penn State Altoona’s Devorris Downtown Center in Altoona. The event is co-sponsored by the Greg and Cathy Griffith Family Foundation, which was formed by Cathy Griffith, after her husband, Greg, died from pancreatic cancer.

The test is still in clinical trials and may not be available for several years, which is something that Andraka admitted he finds frustrating. People will sometimes e-mail him and ask if they can get the test from him, and he has to turn them down.

“That is one of the hardest things,” he said. “When I invented this sensor, I was only 14, so I thought it could be out for sale in only a few months.”

Andraka has since talked to doctors in the field, especially Dr. Anirban Maitra – Andraka’s mentor – who explained that the process of getting a drug test approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration is lengthy. Maitra is a pathologist and pancreatic cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“Luckily, I have a wonderful mentor, Dr. Maitra, who helped me see the process more realistically,” Andraka said. “I answer every Facebook post and e-mail I can and explain to people that it just can’t get on the market very fast.”

According to a December 2012 article in Smithsonian magazine, pancreatic cancer is most often fatal because it’s usually discovered too late for doctors to help the patient, Maitra said. The pancreas is hard to get a clear image of when testing, and the cancer will not cause any tell-tale lumps or other signs, as is often the case with cancers such as breast cancer, he said.

But Andraka’s test pinpoints a protein that the body starts to build in excess when pancreatic cancer is present, Maitra said, which makes it a very promising tool in detecting the cancer in its early stages.

Andraka said he has always been interested in science, but it wasn’t until a close family friend died of pancreatic cancer that he decided to try to find a way to help fight the disease.

“I didn’t even know what a pancreas was,” Andraka said. “So I turned to the teenager’s friend, Google, to learn more about the disease and how it was diagnosed and treated.”

The road to finding the test was not a short one, but Andraka didn’t give up. He said he had honed his persistence skills earlier in life by doing math problems that were always a little too hard for him.

“I learned that if I kept trying, I could learn how to solve a problem, and that if I kept thinking even harder or longer, that sometimes I could find an elegant solution to a complex problem,” Andraka said. “That was a great feeling.”

Andraka’s appearance in Altoona will be his second speech in Blair County. Last July, he spoke at The Casino at Lakemont Park to about 500 people, Griffith said. She wanted to bring him back to the area to talk more about his discovery and also to help launch the Alliance of Families Fighting Pancreatic Cancer.

She said the alliance is a concept created by Dr. A. James Moser, executive director of the Institute for Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He is also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston. He was formerly a staff surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in the Division of Surgical Oncology and co-director of the UPMC Multidisciplinary Pancreatic Cancer Center.

Moser wants to direct all research money for pancreatic cancer into one fund, the new alliance, so that it will be used most efficiently, Griffith said. By directing the money to one fund instead of several funds, it should mean the research money will be used more effectively and avoid a scatter-shot approach, she said. The alliance is a combination of various foundations and families nationwide who want to eliminate pancreatic cancer, Griffith said.

Andraka wanted to support the alliance, she said.

“Jack was really thrilled by this announcement and wanted to be there for it,” Griffith said.