The Iconic Inventor of Generation Z

Nieuws | de redactie
3 april 2013 | At only fifteen, Jack Andraka did what the entire medical community couldn’t: he created a cheap sensor test for cancer. If others are to follow his lead, education needs more creativity; the current system “is the most effective way to kill innovation.”

His preventive test for pancreatic cancer could save the lives of 200.00 people each year.  The test, which costs 3 cents and takes only 5 minutes, can also be used to detect other kinds of cancer, HIV, tuberculosis and salmonella. Andraka’s test “is 168 times faster, 26000 times less expensive 400 times more sensitive than the current gold standard for detecting”

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Jack Andraka’s success story could have been a movie. This is one of the reasons why the Singularity University invited him to share his incredible road to success. Jack was only fifteen when he discovered a cheap and effective preventive test for pancreatic cancer, something nobody had done in over 60 years. How? Just by using Google.

It started with a bereavement. When a close family friend, “he was like an uncle to me,” died of pancreatic cancer, Jack turned to the internet to find out what pancreatic cancer was exactly. “When I started, I didn’t even know what a pancreas was.”

He discovered that pancreatic cancer is a non-symptomatic disease, and in 85% of the cases is diagnosed in a very late state. Only 2% survives. Sensor tests cost around $800 and took a long time to develop, so they could never be used preventively.  Jack believed that this cancer could be discovered much earlier and at a much lower cost. He couldn’t stand the idea that people were dying of this disease that could be prevented in an easily.

199 rejections and 1 maybe

Andraka starts writing a research proposal for a test that is “easy, cheap, simple, sensitive and selective, something like a diabetes test strip.” He sends it to 200 cancer-researchers from the John Hopkins University, and receives 199 rejections, and one “maybe.” After three months, Prof. Anriban Maitra of John Hopkins agreed to speak to the young researcher. “I was interrogated for an hour by 20 specialists, but I finally got my laboratory time.”

What would he have done if he hadn’t received 199 rejections, but 200? “We’ll never know, but I probably would have contacted some other scientists”. Andraka’s grit and endurance, show that perhaps it is as Albert Einstein said: “many people say that intellect is what makes a great scientist. They are wrong. It is character.”

So, how is it possible that a fifteen year old succeeded where the entire medical industry failed for 60 years? “I could come up with it, because I can still think outside the box. The rest study this topic for many years and get stuck in the same thoughts, they cannot find a breakthrough because of all the academic noise. They are only focused on incrementing, but can no longer think outside the box.”

Creativity needed in education

During his research, Jack faced several barriers. How could these be addressed to stimulate other teenagers to follow his lead? “Education is completely messed-up. It is still the same as it was centuries ago. The education we have in the US is directly derived from the British Empire, and has hardly changed since. Everybody has to be the same in the system, which is completely outdated. It is the most effective way to kill innovation. What you really need in education is creativity, not reproducing outdated knowledge.”

“Education should be about problem solving, and should be done in groups. Give a group a problem and let them use the internet to solve the problem. Education should be about a multi-disciplinary approach to a problem, about finding  any way to solve it. In real life problems can’t be split in mathematics, physics and biology, so why is it done in education?”

Internet plays a central role in Andraka’s ideal education. “In these projects internet should be used to do some background research. Then you start to form ideas and do some more research, this time more specifically on the ideas you formed. When you have a laptop with internet, you have access to more information than President Clinton had 15 years ago. Can you imagine? If I had wanted to do this 30 years ago, when there was no internet, I would not have succeeded.”

End the publish-or-perish world

When he started his research, Andraka was mainly using Google and Wikipedia. Later, he started using Open Access articles on medical research. “I am very glad that President Obama backs Open Access for all federal research, but that doesn’t mean that all privately funded research will become open. Scientists want their articles peer-reviewed in prestigious journals, and that costs money, so I think the pay-wall will continue to exist. It is hard to find published papers on the internet, that worries me.”

Andraka is critical of the current scientific climate as well. “There are not enough interdisciplinary collaborations at this time, in this publish-or-perish world. Professors often go for low-risk ideas. They have to get used to the idea that failure is ok. People always go for the safe option, in the US as well as elsewhere.”


Currently, Jack has started work on his newest project: he wants to develop the best Tricorder, a multifunction hand-held device used for sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording data made famous in the Star Trek series.  The $10 million Tricorder X Prize asks entrants to create a handheld mobile platform that can diagnose 15 diseases across 30 patients in just three days. “This summer we go to MIT to make the Tricorder, we have been doing research now for 1 year and at the end of the summer, our product will be ready. However, the prize will not be awarded before 2015, so during the coming years we will be improving it.”

While you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that Andraka has the support of a group of PhDs and professors, his team actually exists of Andraka and two other kid geniuses, calling themselves Generation-Z. And between them, they want to revolutionize healthcare.

Making Star Trek technology real

The Tricorder could revolutionize the entire medical field, a small device the size of a smartphone would be able to detect 15 diseases, is reusable and would only cost around $25.  “First we could tear down the socio-economic barriers in healthcare. Later we could use the data from these tests to track were diseases are going to prevent others to get ill.”

Preventing illnesses would also save a lot of money. “The costs of healthcare rises exponentially the later the illness is discovered. Preventing people to get ill, would not only be better for these people but also help to make money spend on healthcare more effective. Governments and people should invest in preventive action, but should look for better treatments as well.”

And as for Jack’s future? After finishing the Tricorder, he will start fundamental research on the folding of proteins. “I want to fundamentally understand why proteins fold, and why they fold the way they do, people do still not know this while this knowledge bears great potential for treatments of various diseases.” 

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