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US teenager’s test for pancreatic cancer spots advanced, not early-stage disease

18 February 2013

Jack Andraka the Maryland teenager who won both a major international science fair competition and a US Youth Award in 2012 for a dipstick test for pancreatic cancer, is a worthy winner for such a superb project. To have even thought of using nanotubes coated with antibodies to capture specific proteins at the age of 15 is truly astonishing.

However, some media articles have been misleading, describing Jack’s project as being able to “spot the presence of the cancer-linked protein well before the cancer itself becomes invasive”. The Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund would like to clarify that this is not the case.

The protein that Jack’s test is looking for is mesothelin, a protein found in the majority of pancreatic tumours and also found in the bloodstream of many people with pancreatic cancer. Mesothelin is already of interest to researchers and is currently undergoing investigation as an immunotherapeutic agent (for example Johns Hopkins researchers are using mesothelin peptides to vaccinate pancreatic cancer patients to boost their immune response).

Jack has shown that the test he has developed can reliably detect low levels of mesothelin in the bloodstream of both mice and people. He has also shown that levels of mesothelin are higher in the bloodstream of mice with pancreatic cancer than in healthy mice – and has also shown the same using samples from a small number of people with advanced pancreatic cancer compared to healthy individuals.

However, mesothelin is only expressed when pancreatic cancer is already well advanced and we do not yet know how much mesothelin is circulating in the bloodstream of those with early pancreatic cancer or pre-cancer.  So whilst Jack’s research is exceptional, it may not be enough to develop into a reliable diagnostic test for early stage pancreatic cancer which would give these patients the chance of being eligible for surgery, and hence the chance of survival.  

We understand that Jack is now working with interested companies to investigate whether the test could become commercially available. In the meantime, more research and larger studies will need to be done on people at risk of developing pancreatic cancer to find out whether measuring levels of mesothelin could be a reliable indicator of diagnosing early stage pancreatic cancer, or perhaps whether this could be combined with the measurement of other such proteins associated with the disease. This will take several years.

Pleasingly, there are plenty of positive things to note from Jack’s research:  his project has very publicly highlighted the desperate need to develop more sensitive – and cheaper – diagnostic techniques;   his research offers a potential route to achieving this goal; and he’s also shown how nanotechnology can be readily applied in novel ways in pancreatic cancer research.  In addition, Johns Hopkins University should also be congratulated for supporting this young man in giving him free access to their laboratories and equipment.

We applaud Jack’s extraordinary talents and remarkable tenacity, and sincerely hope that he retains his interest in developing pancreatic cancer diagnostics. Clearly he has a great future ahead.

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