SAVING LIVES

It was a bit like a boy band gig gone wrong. The boy was on stage, the largely female American audience were on their feet, there was much clapping and wooping, but the women doing the wooping were in their 30s and 40s, far older than the normal boy band fan group.

The boy on stage was Jack Andraka and the women in the audience were generally mums who had come to a talented children conference in Baltimore Maryland USA

Despite the nature of the gathering the vibe was very much like a music gig. Jack would speak and the audience would holler their appreciation, stand and applaud and at the end gathered round him for photos.

To add to the rock star image – I was told that Jack was tired from being on the road doing a lot of these kind of gigs and so before he spoke to me, his mother said he would need a short rest. He lay down on the floor between the aisles of chairs and grabbed 40 winks.

Jack Andraka and Me Giving the Thumbs Sign - but I can't remember to what

The fuss around Jack stems not from his music but from an invention of his that, he claims, may be able to spot early signs of cancer. The noise around this possible development is given an extra frisson because Jack is only 18 years old.

He was motivated in his research by the death from pancreatic cancer of a close family friend, which made him feel there must be a way of spotting such cancers early and thereby giving people a chance for more effective treatment.

Andraka said the idea for his pancreatic cancer test came to him while he was in biology class at High School. He then contacted 200 professors at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health with a plan, a budget, and a timeline for his project, hoping to receive laboratory help. He received 199 rejection emails before he got a positive reply from Anirban Maitra, Professor of Pathology, Oncology, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

It’s the sort of story they might make a film of, indeed to some it sounds a bit too Hollywood-like. Some in the field are not convinced of the effectiveness of his approach. But either way it is an inspiring story that might develop into something very useful.

In our programme on the science of saving lives, his story stands out partly because most of the work in this area take millions if not billions of pounds to develop and is dominated by big industry, big academic institutions and big money. But amongst the big boys of science and medicine, it is good to see a small boy showing that the large institutions may not be the only ones with something to contribute.

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