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Empowering Our Makers

How One College STEM Student’s Inventions Are Changing Global Health

Photos: Courtesy of Jack Andraka, Mark Tucker

Jack Andraka’s STEM inventions are helping detect cancer, fight water pollution, identify neglected tropical diseases and redefine global health approaches. It may come as a surprise to learn that this National Geographic Emerging Explorer is only a junior at Stanford University.

“The most rewarding part about inventing to me is when my invention is used by the communities and individuals I set out to help,” Andraka said. “The feeling you get from the knowledge that something you created is helping improve the lives of people is this amazing combination of joy, pride, empathy and humility from recognizing that you could make a positive change in collaboration with your communities.”

Working to help others

Andraka speaks to aspiring innovators about topics including new approaches to public health, the role of humanities in tech and the importance of big data and education. Andraka, who has been doing backyard experiments since he was three years old, also shares more about the high school invention that helped put him on the map: a tool that helps detect certain cancers in five minutes for 3 cents.

“I first became interested in cancer research following the death of a close family friend from pancreatic cancer when I was 13 years old,” Andraka said. “Following this, I began researching how pancreatic cancer is diagnosed and found that 85 percent of all pancreatic cancers are diagnosed too late, when surgery is no longer an option and survival is less than 2 percent.”

He identified a protein, mesothelin, that skyrockets in people with pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers, and invented a paper biosensor that detects minute changes in blood mesothelin concentrations. He proposed the idea to MD Anderson’s Dr. Anirban Maitra, who was then at Johns Hopkins University, and Maitra helped make Andraka’s idea a reality. The test detects early signs of those cancers with 90 percent accuracy, Andraka said. “While the biosensor still has to clear FDA clinical trials, it represents an exciting possibility for the future of pancreatic cancer and, more broadly, disease detection,” Andraka added.

This summer, Andraka is traveling around the world to propel his projects. He remains motivated by the desire to effect positive change.

“Dream big and take risks,” said Andraka, offering advice to hopeful makers. “If I hadn’t taken the chance of emailing Dr. Maitra, I would never be where I am today. Don’t be afraid of failure. Just work a little bit on your project every day, even if it’s frustrating, and you’ll be changing the world before you know it.”

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