Meet Jack Andraka, the 18-year-old whose invention will save lives

He’s only 18, but Jack Andraka has been feted for producing an early-detection test for hard-to diagnose and often fatal cancers. However, he has also struggled with being gay and being bullied in high school, says Caroline O’Doherty.

Meet Jack Andraka, the 18-year-old whose invention will save lives

As a rule, an autobiography by anyone yet to sprout their first grey hair is best avoided. It’s likely by a second-team Premier league footballer with a demanding merchandising contract, or a TV talent-show star with a fast-approaching sell-by date.

So when an 18-year-old offers his life story to the public, it’s usually best to prepare to let the lad down gently.

But Jack Andraka doesn’t sing or dance, and his lack of prowess in team sports is just one reason the all-American high-school experience has been challenging for him.

What he does do is science — boundary-pushing, life-affirming, and potentially life-changing. It is a talent, coupled with a remarkable persistence, that produced an early-detection test for hard-to-diagnose cancers (which are almost always fatal by the time they are belatedly discovered).


His test, which he formulated when he was 14, is still in development — medical breakthroughs can take years to progress from the laboratory to the clinic — but the prototype has been hailed as a massive achievement that will ultimately save countless lives.

If you’re a teenager reading this, you may have to fight feelings of inferiority; if you’re a parent of a teenager, you may have to resist the urge to howl: ‘where did I go wrong’?

Jack’s not a freak, nor a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy, nor a product of overbearing parents.

Jack is a fairly ordinary young man from a fairly ordinary family, which only serves to make his accomplishments all the more extraordinary.

He was born and raised in Crownsville, a town of fewer than 2,000 people, close to Baltimore, in the state of Maryland, on the east coast of the United States.

His mother, Jane, a theatre nurse specialising in anesthetics, and his father, Steve, a civil engineer with a local construction company, were both interested in maths and science and passed their enthusiasm on to Jack and his older brother, Luke.

But they equally encouraged their sons to try sports, musical instruments and other pursuits, regardless of how good — or, more often in Jack’s case, bad — they were at them.

They allowed the boys the time and freedom to potter, to explore, to question and to make a mess in their modest home — albeit it with the benefit of one of those extensive American basements that are the envy of the semi-d dwellers of Ireland.

It was Luke who first showed signs of being a junior boffin and it was sibling rivalry, mixed with big brother idolisation, that motivated Jack to prove he was just as good.

Separately, they won awards in school science competitions and, together, they knocked out the power of their neighbourhood, when one of their basement experiments went awry.

Later, when other parents might have worried about getting a knock on the door from the local police, warning that their son was drinking underage or painting graffiti, the Andrakas were being contacted by the FBI, because Jack was buying suspicious chemicals over the internet.

It was all good, healthy fun for Jack, until a beloved family friend, whom he’d known all his life as Uncle Ted, became ill with pancreatic cancer.

Ted, a water-quality inspector, often brought Jack crab-fishing in Chesapeake Bay and explained to him how pollution was damaging the ecosystem.

Jack could see how their haul of crabs diminished each year and Ted’s talks inspired him. To filter out some of the toxins in the water, Jack used the plastics in the soft-drink bottles people so carelessly discard.

But the words of the doctors trying in vain to save Ted kept circling Jack’s thoughts: ‘If only we’d caught it sooner.’

Those thoughts shaped into a theory — that there must be a way of detecting the changes a pancreatic tumour causes in the body before the tumour itself is obvious.

Now for the science. Jack needed to identify a biomarker — which would react to the presence of the inconspicuous tumour and signal its presence.

He decided on a protein, but he had to sift through 8,000 before finding one that would react sufficiently to the small quantities of antibodies that an early-stage tumour would provoke into growth.

He also had to create a cheap, but accurate, test strip for dipping into a blood or urine sample. Otherwise, his test kit would not be widely available and the benefits of early detection would be lost.

To do all this, he needed more facilities than the family basement could offer, but, after writing to 200 academics in the field, begging for laboratory time, Jack spent weeks fielding rejections, before just one decided to give him a chance.

Jack’s breakthrough won him multiple awards, invitations to the White House, massive media coverage, a place in one of the world’s most prestigious colleges, Stanford University, and endless guest appearances — including at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition here, last year.

But that’s only part of Jack’s story, because not only is he a ‘geek’, but he’s a gay geek — which was difficult, particularly given the gay-bashing culture he encountered in school, from both pupils and teachers.

He derides the advice that well-meaning booklets on dealing with bullying often dispense. “One site even suggested that I ‘try to talk it out and come to a common place of understanding’. Sure. And then let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya,” he writes.

“Anyone who has actually been through the gauntlet of hate understands that no amount of jokes, walking away, or ignoring can get a hater off your back.”

Salvation for Jack came in the form of a few brave and loyal friends and his research, which got him out of a lot of classes. For others with no such escape route, he says there should be no shame in giving up the struggle and switching schools.

“You aren’t running away from your problems — you are choosing to take yourself out of a negative environment and place yourself in a positive one,” he says in an addendum to his story, where he offers his own advice.

That’s social scientist Jack talking, but laboratory scientist Jack has also included another addendum, detailing various experiments anyone inspired by his story might like to tackle.

They’re rather more primitive than detecting cancer — things like turning a potato into a clock and making a rain cloud in a bottle — but they’re based on the same principles of questioning, exploring, trying out, and not accepting limits.

Apart from one: “Be sure to obey the Andraka family rule: don’t blow up the house.”

  • Breakthrough — How One Teen Innovator Is Changing The World, is written by Jack Andraka with journalist, Matthew Lysiak


More in this section

ieParenting Logo
Writers ieParenting

Our team of experts are on hand to offer advice and answer your questions here

Your digital cookbook

ieStyle Live 2021 Logo
ieStyle Live 2021 Logo

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails

Discover the great outdoors on Ireland's best walking trails

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd