If you’re feeling anxious about how U.S. kids lag the world in science and math, or just in a funk about politics or the mess in Europe, take in this story of a high school freshman from Crownsville, Md. who came up with a prize-winning breakthrough that could change how cancer and other fatal diseases are diagnosed and treated.
His name is Jack Andraka, and he loves science and engineering with every inch of his 15-year-old soul. Just spend a minute or so watching this video. Seriously, do it now before you read more. Nothing from the Oscars or Grammys comes close to the unabashed excitement and joy of Andraka charging up to the stage to accept his $75,000 grand prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May. This is the Olympics of youth science, with more than 1,500 entries from 70 countries competing, each of which already won their national competitions.
Andraka’s diagnostic breakthrough is a humble piece of filter paper, except that it is dipped in a solution of carbon nanotubes, which are hollow cylinders with walls the thickness of a single atom, coated with a specific antibody designed to bind with the virus or protein you’re looking for. Andraka’s key insight is that there are noticeable changes in the electrical conductivity of the nanotubes when the distances between them changes. When the antibodies on the surface of the nanotubes come in contact with a target protein, the proteins bind to the tubes and spread them apart a tiny bit. That shift in the spaces between tubes can be detected by an electrical meter. Andraka used a $50 meter from the Home Depot to do the trick but, he says, doctors can just as easily insert his test-strips into the kinds of devices used by millions of diabetics around the world.
The current gold standard for protein detection in blood is called Elisa. Andraka's test is 168 times faster, over 26,000 times less expensive, and over 400 times more sensitive. It's also nearly 100 percent accurate in its diagnosis.