Maryland high school student wins $75,000 for science fair project on pancreatic cancer diagnosis

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A Closer Look at the Passionate Research Effort of Jack Andraka

Maryland teenager Jack Andraka has won several national awards and has spent the past few years enthusiastically promoting his work in exploring diagnostic tools for early detection of pancreatic cancer. We are delighted that Jack shows such promise as a scientist, and that he has put his talent and effort to work towards such a worthwhile goal.

Although Jack’s work seems promising, we feel that as a reliable and accurate source for information about pancreatic cancer, it is important to provide some additional perspective to the general public based on recent media coverage that suggests that Jack’s diagnostic tool for pancreatic cancer is actually available and ready to use. Therefore, it is very important that pancreatic cancer patients and those at risk for pancreatic cancer understand that this work is still very, very preliminary and many more years of research will be required before this test could become widely available.

Jack’s project involved a dipstick technology, whereby a small piece of paper is coated with antibodies that recognize proteins that circulate in the blood or urine of patients with pancreatic cancer, but not individuals without the disease. This technology is much quicker and less expensive than standard laboratory tests.

The following Q & A will help clarify Jack’s project and what his work means in the fight against pancreatic cancer.

What do we know about the ability of Jack’s test to detect pancreatic cancer?

  • The studies Jack performed show that the test he developed for the protein he is interested in, called mesothelin, is a good, reliable assay that detects very low levels of the protein in the bloodstream of mice.
  • Jack performed his experiments in the laboratory of Anirban Maitra, MBBS, at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Maitra has since relocated to MD Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Maitra is a leader in the field, recipient of two Pancreatic Cancer Action Network research grants and a member of our Scientific and Medical Advisory Board. Jack showed in mouse studies that the levels of mesothelin are higher in the bloodstream of mice with pancreatic cancer compared to healthy mice. There are published scientific studies that show that the majority of people with pancreatic cancer have high levels of mesothelin in their tumors, and many also have mesothelin in the bloodstream. So there is reason to think that mesothelin is a good indicator of pancreatic cancer, but it may be necessary to combine detection of mesothelin with other proteins to be sure the test does not miss identifying people who have pancreatic cancer.
  • We do not yet know how much mesothelin is circulating in the bloodstream of patients whose disease is caught early enough to be eligible for surgery, or those with pre-cancer. Many promising biomarkers have worked in the case of cancer where levels are high, but have subsequently failed in tests that aim for early detection. This is because the levels of the marker are generally much lower in patients with small, early lesions compared to levels in the patients with more advanced disease that make up the test population.

What needs to be done before this test is available to everyone?

  • Jack will need to partner with companies that are interested in taking his discoveries forward for more testing and able to make the test commercially available.
  • Studies with a much larger number of samples, and ultimately a forward-looking study on individuals at risk for developing pancreatic cancer, are required before this test could be considered ready to use for the diagnosis of cancer. It will take several years and a lot of resources before these studies can be accomplished, but Jack’s findings have led to some very promising possibilities for a fast, inexpensive test for the early detection of pancreatic cancer.

We are excited to see such exuberance and passion from a high school science student interested in experimenting in how to help fight this terrible disease, but want to help ensure that his work is publicized appropriately. We wish Jack and other budding young scientists who are interested in working in the area of pancreatic cancer to pursue it with dedication and determination.