A Teen With An Internet Connection vs Cancer

At age 13, after losing a family friend to pancreatic cancer, Jack Andraka set out to discover why the available tests couldn’t detect the disease earlier and at a lower cost. Amazingly, he stumbled upon a way to do just that – he estimates his method is 168 times faster, 26,000 times cheaper and over 400 times more sensitive than the tests available at the time. He tells his story in the above TED talk. In a companion interview, Andraka provides context:

I was really shocked by the fact that we didn’t have any way to detect pancreatic cancer. I mean, with a lot of diseases you have one test that can detect it. Like with breast cancer you have the mammography, or with HIV/AIDS you have that screening test. But with pancreatic cancer you have to have this really invasive biopsy or you have to go through an MRI or CT scan. All those are really invasive and I couldn’t believe there wasn’t just a routine assay you couldn’t just get to see if you had pancreatic cancer.

Update from a reader:

Oh no, not Jack Andraka again. He took an existing idea and pretends it was his idea.

His statistics all seemed to improve by a factor of 10 from the Intel paper where he first won their prize until two so-called science journalists at Forbes started writing about him. An article at pancan.org correcting some of his errors got scrubbed just before his appearance at the SOTU address.

He did an interesting science fair project and then seemed to get caught up in a huge hype machine that distorted what he did 0 fueled mostly, it seems, by the Forbes “journalists”. All this was happening around the time of the Manti Teo/Lennay Kekua story and Sports Illustrated was getting reamed for not enough fact-checking on a feel-good story. I would love to see Forbes get reamed for their inadequate fact checking on this feel-good story.

Yes, the world needs more people interested in science. But it also needs fewer science journalists passing on bogus data from science fair projects.

Another reader:

This TED talk has recently been making the rounds (I’ve been sent it by two people this week alone).  Alas, here is the take on it from an actual pancreatic researcher I know, at a major US medical school:

This marker was discovered by Anirban Maitra about a decade ago.  The student applied it to an inexpensive device and seems to be getting the credit.  I think the competition judges were wrong on the selection.

From a scientific perspective, the test is useless.  This problem repeats countless times because only clinicians and basic scientists are involved in these studies, no epidemiologists.  The problem is that pancreatic cancer (or ovarian, liver, etc., the rare ones) has a lifetime risk of 1% in the US.  This means that a test that did nothing, said everyone tested was negative, would be correct much more than 99% of the time.  In addition, even if it were 99% accurate in giving positive results, for every person correctly identified as having pancreatic cancer, more than 10 people would be incorrectly identified even though they didn’t have cancer (false positives).  These individuals would then go on to have expensive invasive testing and suffer psychologically before determined that they didn’t have cancer, and there would be some potential morbidity associated with the unnecessary testing.

So the problem is that for a rare disease like pancreatic cancer, a test that is 99% accurate (we say 99% sensitivity and 99% specificity) is still not useful enough as a population screening tool.  The test in question is not close to 99%, let alone better.


If you find out you have pancreatic cancer early then the most likely outcome is that you know for a longer time that you’re going to die. The survival rates by stage are here. And don’t forget these are also biased. Imagine that if a disease is definitely going to kill you by a certain date then early detection gives the illusion of better survival simply because you know about it earlier.

Kudos to the kid, but until somebody comes up with a cure it’s just false hope. These stories are fundamentally cruel and don’t deserve this kind of publicity.