High School Student Develops Diagnostic Test to Detect Early-Stage Pancreatic Cancer
New approach to clinical laboratory testing could eliminate the need for tissue biopsies to diagnose different types of cancer
In Maryland, a 15-year-old high school freshman developed a diagnostic assay that experts say can be developed into medical laboratory test for the detection of pancreatic cancer. The teen’s prize-winning breakthrough test could change how cancer and other fatal diseases are diagnosed and treated.
More to the point for anatomic pathologists, this new approach to detecting pancreatic cancer is non-invasive, so it does not require a biopsy specimen. It is also inexpensive and fast. At a cost of about $3 per test, the diagnostic assay produces a result in five minutes.
Clever Diagnostic Test Could Find Use in Clinical Laboratories
A story published by Forbes.com described how teenager Jack Andraka took top honors—and a $75,000 award—at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his stunning discovery of a new diagnostic test for early detection of pancreatic cancer.
“Survival rates for patients with pancreatic cancer remain low,” stated Michael Bouvet, M. D., Co-Director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Unit at Moores Cancer Center at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). He was quoted in a story sciencedaily.com reported by ScienceDaily.com.
Bouvet is a specialist in pancreatic surgery. He is involved with a UCSD research project to develop an early detection biomarker for pancreatic cancer. “[E]arlier detection and novel treatment strategies are very important if we are going to make any progress against pancreatic cancer,” he noted.
Andraka created a clinical laboratory test that uses filter paper dipped into a solution of carbon nanotubes (CN), Forbes reported. (See Dark Daily, “Carbon Nanotubes Hold Promise for Use in Speedy, Low-cost, Point-of-Care Medical Laboratory Tests”.) It detects the levels of mesothelin in blood or urine. Mesothelin is a protein biomarker for pancreatic cancer.
Andraka was able to detect the small shifts in electrical conductivity that occurred after the proteins attached to the carbon nanotubes. Most interesting, his detection device was a $50 electric meter from Home Depot. The teen observed that this diagnostic test would also work with an ordinary diabetes meter.
By the time pancreatic cancer is detected using conventional medical laboratory testing methods, it is usually at an advanced stage, leaving patients with a poor prognosis. “It’s really crucial to detect [pancreatic, lung and ovarian cancers] in their early stages where survival rates are at their highest,” Andraka declared. “I focused specifically on pancreatic cancer… due to its extremely low survival rates.”
The motivation for Andraka’s research was personal. When Andraka’s uncle died of pancreatic cancer, the youngster became inspired to develop an early-detection test for the disease. “I became interested in early detection, did some research, and came up with this idea,” he stated.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. The National Cancer Institute estimates that, in 2012, over 43,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer are expected to be diagnosed and over 37,000 people will die from the disease.
New Approach Could Replace Existing Types of Medical Lab Testing
Andraka’s breakthrough test is non-invasive and built upon a paper strip test. Experts say its advantages over current assays for pancreatic cancer are striking. According to the Forbes story, Andraka’s test:
- is 100 times more selective than existing diagnostic tests;
- ignored healthy patient samples, as well as those with mere pancreatitis;
- is 168 times faster, 26,667 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive than the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA);
- costs $3, whereas an ELISA-based clinical laboratory test can cost up to $800;
- allows for ten tests to be performed on one strip;
- produces results in five minutes; and
- can be adapted for use to monitor resistance to antibiotics and to follow the progression of treatment of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation.
Ironically, the ingenious Andraka was rejected by almost 200 researchers in his search for a lab to do his nanotube strip work, Forbes reported. Finally, Anirban Maitra, M.D., an instructor in the Division of Gastrointestinal Pathology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine agreed to let him work in his laboratory.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists will be interested to learn that Andraka is in the process of patenting his invention. According to Forbes, he plans to submit his work for publication through the American Association for Cancer Research.
Andraka said that he has been contacted by four companies, including Quest Diagnostics, Incorporated (NYSE: DGX), about potentially licensing or commercializing his idea.
—Pamela Scherer McLeod