Want to win an Intel Science Competition ? Find cures and early detection for cancer

Jack Andraka, 15, of Crownsville, Maryland, was awarded the Gordon E. Moore Award for his development of a new method to detect pancreatic cancer. Using an approach similar to that of diabetic test strips, Jack created a simple dip-stick sensor to test the level of mesothelin, a pancreatic cancer biomarker, in blood or urine, to determine whether or not a patient has early-stage pancreatic cancer. His study resulted in over 90 percent accuracy in detecting the presence of mesothelin. Further, his novel patent-pending sensor proved to be 28 times faster, 28 times less expensive and over 100 times more sensitive than current tests.

Nearly 44,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, the National Cancer Institute estimates. High levels of a protein called mesothelin in the blood can reveal the presence of such tumors. But the lack of a quick, cheap diagnostic test for the protein means that the disease tends to be caught late, making it an especially lethal cancer.

Searching for a better detector for mesothelin, Andraka coated paper with tiny tubes of atom-thick carbon. Antibodies stuck to the carbon nanotubes can grab the telltale protein and spread the tubes apart. The carbon’s resistance to the flow of electricity drops measurably as more protein attaches. Tests of the paper using blood samples from 100 people with cancer at different stages of the disease identified the presence of cancer every time, Andraka reported.

Earlier in 2012, the Intel Science Talent Search was won by Nithin Tumma, 17, of Fort Gratiot, Mich., won the top award of $100,000 from the Intel Foundation for his research, which could lead to more direct, targeted, effective and less toxic breast cancer treatments.

He analyzed the molecular mechanisms in cancer cells and found that by inhibiting certain proteins, we may be able to slow the growth of cancer cells and decrease their malignancy. Nithin is first in his class of 332, a varsity tennis player and a volunteer for the Port Huron Museum, where he started a restoration effort for historical and cultural landmarks.

Second and Third Place

Nicholas Schiefer, 17, of Pickering, Ontario, Canada, developed a model to improve the function of Internet search engines, allowing them to perform “micro-searches” – that is, ferret out information from small amounts of content such as tweets or Facebook status updates. Information from these abbreviated messages can be valuable, as in the case of accounts of unfolding news events. Through this research, Nicholas hopes to improve access to information.

Ari Dyckovsky, 18, of Leesburg, Virginia, investigated the science of quantum teleportation. He discovered that once atoms are linked through a process called “entanglement,” information from one atom can simultaneously appear in another atom when the quantum state of the first atom is destroyed. Using this method, organizations requiring high levels of data security, such as the National Security Administration, could send encrypted messages long distances without risking interception because the information would not travel to its new location; it would simply appear there.

More about Andraka’s Work

Forbes- Andraka’s diagnostic breakthrough is a humble piece of filter paper, except that it is dipped in a solution of carbon nanotubes, which are hollow cylinders with walls the thickness of a single atom, coated with a specific antibody designed to bind with the virus or protein you’re looking for. Andraka’s key insight is that there are noticeable changes in the electrical conductivity of the nanotubes when the distances between them changes. When the antibodies on the surface of the nanotubes come in contact with a target protein, the proteins bind to the tubes and spread them apart a tiny bit. That shift in the spaces between tubes can be detected by an electrical meter. Andraka used a $50 meter from the Home Depot to do the trick but, he says, doctors can just as easily insert his test-strips into the kinds of devices used by millions of diabetics around the world.

Andraka’s paper sensor is extremely sensitive. In a single-blinded test of 100 patient samples, it spotted the presence of mesothelin, a protein commonly used as a biomarker for pancreatic cancer, at a limit of 0.156 nano grams per milliliter, well below the 10 ng/mL considered an overexpression of mesothelin consistent with pancreatic cancer. It’s also 100 times more selective than existing diagnostic tests, which means no false positives or false negatives. It ignored healthy patient samples as well as those with mere pancreatitis. Compared with the 60-year-old diagnostic technique called enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (or ELISA), used in pregnancy test strips and viral checks for HIV, West Nile and hepatitis B, Andraka’s sensor is 168 times faster, 26,667 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive. It can spot the presence of the cancer-linked protein well before the cancer itself becomes invasive.

This could save the lives of thousands of pancreatic cancer victims each year. The sensor costs $3 (ELISA can cost up to $800) and ten tests can be performed per strip, with each test taking five minutes. It can be used also to monitor resistance to antibiotics and follow the progression of treatment of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation.

Andraka is in the process of patenting his invention and will soon be submitting his work for publication through the American Association for Cancer Research. He’s also speaking before Congress on June 25 about the need for more funding on pancreatic cancer, which has a horrific 5.5% survival rate. He says he’s been contacted by four companies, including Quest Diagnostics, about potentially licensing or commercializing the idea. “I got a really fierce patent lawyer right after I won ISEF,” says Andraka, laughing, from his home in Maryland.

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