North County student wins Intel Science Fair's top prize

North County High School freshman Jack Andraka stood on the auditorium stage, speaking about the invention that earned him the $75,000 grand prize at the recent Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Behind him stood Dr. Anirban Maitra, a professor in the Johns Hopkins University's department of pathology who gave Jack use of his lab to craft his invention, a cheap and effective "dipstick-sensor" method of testing blood or urine to identify early-stage pancreatic cancer and other diseases.

"Keep that last name in mind. You're going to read about him a lot in the years to come," said Maitra of the 15-year-old prodigy from Crownsville. "What I tell my lab is, 'Think of Thomas Edison and the light bulb.' This kid is the Edison of our times. There are going to be a lot of light bulbs coming from him."

Jack said that he first became interested in science at age 3, when he would test the properties of water by dropping objects in river currents.

He began the project last year and says he emailed about 200 Johns Hopkins professors, University of Maryland professors and officials at the National Institutes of Health before Maitra took interest.

"I came up with the idea, and it took me a really long time to envision it, and then it took about five months to complete the entire process," said Jack, who said he was inspired to create the project after a family member and an acquaintance died of pancreatic cancer.

Jack said that his method also can be used to detect ovarian and lung cancer. He added, "It can also look at drug resistance for cancer therapeutic drugs and it can look at how effective a chemotherapeutic drug is."

Officials at Intel said that Jack's method tests the level of mesothelin, a pancreatic cancer biomarker, in blood or urine, and his study resulted in more than 90 percent accuracy in detecting the presence of mesothelin.

Jack said the dipstick-sensor method costs 3 cents and takes five minutes. Intel officials said the method has proved to be dozens of times faster and less expensive, as well as more than 100 times more sensitive, than current tests.

The $75,000 grand prize, the Gordon E. Moore Award, is named in honor of the co-founder of Intel. Jack also won other prizes in smaller individual categories for a total award of $100,500.

"It's been my childhood dream to go to ISEF, and I never thought I would go onto that stage as the Gordon E. Moore Award winner," said Jack, who said he is slated to speak before Congress next month as part of Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day.

"This was a big accomplishment for me. It fulfilled my biggest and wildest dreams," Jack said. "But also, it means that I can actually get the word out about this deadly disease and this new test that I use to detect it."

His brother, Luke, a junior at North County High, won last year's MIT Technology for Humanity guided by Innovation, Networking, and Knowledge (THINK) Award, which recognizes students whose science projects benefit their communities. Two years ago, Luke won $96,000 in prizes at the Intel ISEF, with a project that examined how acid mine drainage affected the environment.

"You know how the younger brother is overshadowed by the older brother. Finally, he finds his place in the sun," said their mother, Jane Andraka. She said that as her sons have grown to ages where youngsters gravitate toward interests beyond classroom learning, she has "tried to refocus them on what they're excited about" in science.

"For some reason, we're not a super-athletic family. We don't go to much football or baseball," said Jane Andraka, an anesthetist. The boys' father, Steve Andraka, is a civil engineer.

"Instead we have a million [science] magazines," Jane said, "so we sit around the table and talk about how people came up with their ideas and what we would do differently."

Jack, a STEM student at North County High, was honored Tuesday before a school audience that included fellow STEM students who gave him a raucous standing ovation. He said that his accomplishments have helped fuel interest in the sciences.

"I didn't get made fun of going to the cancer research lab every single Friday night and during my breaks," said Jack. "I was actually celebrated for doing that. People were actually fascinated that I was doing this research. That was what was super-cool about this entire experience."