How a 15-year old changed the world and how you can, too

How a 15-year old changed the world and how you can, too

Deep within each of us lies a desire to change the world. For most of us reading this, that means making the world a better place and improving the human condition. For the majority, this is achieved through every day, small scale successes like educating young children, helping strangers, creating jobs, mentoring and the like.

But one 15-year old changed the world by developing a cancer test that is 168 times faster and 26,667 less expensive and 400 times more sensitive than existing alternatives.

Those were not typos. A 15-year old came up with a test for pancreatic cancer that is a fraction of the cost and many times better than the existing alternative.

For those who don’t know, every year, about 45,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the US. The disease has an 85% morbidity rate.

These are US statistics, but doing a simple extrapolation, that would imply that over a million people develop pancreatic cancer each year, and the survival rates are probably lower in developing countries, which is where the majority of the world’s population resides.

Existing tests, developed by leading pharmaceutical companies, cost thousands of dollars. This new test—developed by a teenager—costs roughly three cents.

The inventor of this new technology is Jack Andraka, who won a $75,000 prize at the Intel ISEF 2012 Gordon E Moor Award. The young inventor, now 16, has retained a patent lawyer and is very likely to earn a lot more than that once his invention gets to market.

For such a young person to make such an amazing break through, Mr. Andraka is remarkably well rounded, as can be seen from his recent appearance on the Colber Report.

Jack may be young, but there are a few key lessons to be learned from his success.

Do what you believe: Jack had an epiphany and believed it was possible to use a low-cost paper sensor with an electrical voltage test to redefine how pancreatic cancer was tested;

  1. Make sure you have a great support network: Jack believed he could pursue his insights because he came from a science-friendly family; his father is a civil engineer, and his mother would spend countless hours waiting in the family car over the 7-month period it took for Mr. Andraka to perfect his technology;
  2. Don’t take no for an answer: Jack wrote to 200 research labs and was rejected by 199 of them. The single positive response he got was from Johns Hopkins which allowed him to make use of their facilities for his research and design;
  3. Stick with it: Forget the fact that it took this young inventor 7 months to perfect his technology; many believe it will take a decade for his invention to reach commercialization. That feels like a long time to me, and it has to feel even longer for Jack. Still, from his recent remarks, he seems as enthusiastic and bullish as ever.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be fortunate (or smart) enough to develop something that can save so many lives, but I know that I will be looking to this young man as a source of inspiration the next time I think something is too hard.

I hope you do, too. If Jack can change the world, maybe we all can.

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