Since mid-2012 there has been a lot of publicity surrounding an American schoolboy, Jack Andraka, who won a major prize at Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair for inventing a new diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. Jack's work was supervised by Professor Anirban Maitra at John's Hopkins University, Baltimore.
To date (March 2013) there has been little data published that would allow an objective assessment of this test. No scientific paper has yet been published relating to the diagnostic test, which may because papers of this nature are usually only published once a patent application had been filed.
Because of this, any assessment, can only be based on what has appeared in articles and interviews. From an interview with Jack Andraka (Wall Street Journal Live, 2012) and an article in Smithsonian magazine (Tucker, 2012) it appears that the test can be carried out on blood or urine, and is based on the detection of mesothelin by anti-mesothelin antibodies, using induced electrical changes in carbon nanotubes as the readout method. It is not specific for pancreatic cancer, having the potential to detect ovarian and lung cancer as well.
Reports to date claim that the test shows increased quantitative sensitivity, reduced cost and increased speed when compared to the currently available ELISA test. The factors by which each of these parameters are claimed to have been improved varies between different sources. For example, Jack himself has started that it is 400 times more sensitive, 26000 times less expensive (at US $0.03 per test) and 168 times faster (taking 5 minutes) (Wall Street Journal Live, 2012), whilst Intel (which sponsored the prizes that Jack won which sparked all the publicity) claims a 100-fold increase in sensitivity, 28-fold reduction in cost, and 28-fold increase in speed (Intel, 2012). As we understand from further media reports, Jack is now talking with a number of companies possible commercialisation of the test (Wall Street Journal Live, 2012).
The development of a simple, accurate and inexpensive test to detect pancreatic cancer would represent a significant step forward. Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of any of the 21 most common cancers and little progress in improving survival has been achieved in the last 40 years. A test of this kind could potentially transform the pancreatic cancer landscape and have a significant impact on the numbers of patients diagnosed at a point when the disease could be successfully treated.
Because of this, Pancreatic Cancer UK looks forward to publication of scientific papers outlining Jack Andraka's test - which we hope will provide evidence that shows that this test has real promise. However, we are also aware that it can take a long time before scientific developments of this kind can move from the initial research phase - which shows promise - to the point when they are proven to be effective and made widely available.
Jack's supervisor Prof. Maitra, has been quoted as saying that he believes that the test should ultimately be modified to include the ability to detect other "flag-raising" cancer proteins - and that a lot more testing needs to be done and that, even if all goes well, the product probably would not be marketed for at least a decade (Tucker, 2012).
Pancreatic Cancer UK will watch this development closely and report any updates on Jack's test as they unfold.
Tucker, A. (2012) Jack Andraka, the teen prodigy of pancreatic cancer.http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Jack-Andraka-the-Teen-Prodigy-of-Pancreatic-Cancer-179996151.html Accessed 16th March 2013.
Wall Street Journal Live (2012) Intel science winner develops cancer tech.http://live.wsj.com/video/intel-science-winner-develops-cancer-tech/E342B43B-F184-492D-A441-38B28C18D3C1.html#!E342B43B-F184-492D-A441-38B28C18D3C1 Accessed 16th March 2013.