How Generation Y is Redefining the Way Medical Innovation Works + Interview with Jack Andraka


At MedCrunch we have the ability to meet the most exciting people, and write about their scalable impact on healthcare. Generation Y, a generation of innovators and startup artists has had little influence and fun innovating in conservative sectors such as healthcare. For some this has clearly changed. We see that certain young people recognize an opportunity to innovate in this difficult and rigid environment. These are the people starting new digital healthcare companies. With increasing access to knowledge and a variety of input, the amount of medical science reading material on the internet and in online libraries is incredible. Open access allows youngsters to question healthcare practices and the science behind them. A teenager can access incomparably large amounts information to what a world class scientists had access to before the age of the internet. One field that is dominated by world class scientists, is cancer research. Riley Ennis for example has been searching the web for healthcare solutions since he was 15. In high school, he started working on a cancer vaccine that teaches the immune cells of the body to recognize and remove tumors. His sister was born with a heart condition that made him see the power of new innovative treatments. Riley founded the company Immudicon LLC that explores the inner-workings of the human immune system to innovate solutions and improve current cancer therapy strategies. His company developed a technology platform for the intracellular delivery of tumor-associated antigens to enhance immune cell recognition and destruction of cancerous cells without the need for expensive, invasive surgeries. By engaging with international networks such as the Kairos Society, Riley’s research and technology applications were taken seriously. Such networks can become a great enabler. “Healthcare needs a fresh and non-afflicted perspective, young innovators can offer exactly that”, says Riley Ennis.

Another outstanding young person is Jack Andraka. His story shows that the medical status-quo can be challenged, even if you are 15 and in school. MedCrunch had the chance to speak to him.

MedCrunch: Hi Jack, with your young spirit you are changing the game of healthcare. How is this even possible?

Jack Andraka: When I was 14 a close family friend who was like an uncle to me passed away from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was so I turned to every teenager’s go – to source of information, Google and Wikipedia to learn more. What I found shocked me. The 5 year survival rate is just awful, with only about 5.5% of people diagnosed achieving that time period. One reason is that the disease is relatively asymptomatic and thus is often diagnosed when a patient is in an advanced stage of the cancer. The current methods are expensive and still miss a lot of cancers.

I knew there had to be a better way so I started reading and learning as much as I could. One day in Biology class I was half listening to the teacher talk about antibodies while I was reading a really interesting article on carbon nanotubes. Then it hit me: what if I combined what I was reading (single walled carbon nanotubes) with what I was supposed to be listening to (antibodies) and used that mixture to detect pancreatic cancer. Of course I had a lot of work left to do so I read and read and thought and thought and finally came up with an idea. I would dip coat strips of inexpensive filter paper with a mixture of single walled carbon nanotubes and the antibody to mesothelin, a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. When mesothelin containing samples were applied the antibody would bind with the mesothelin and push the carbon nanotubes apart, changing the strips’ electrical properties, which I could then measure with an ohm meter borrowed from my dad. Then I realized I needed a lab (my mom is super patient but I don’t think she’d be willing to have cancer research done in her kitchen). I wrote up a proposal and sent it out to 200 professors working on anything to do with pancreatic research. Then I sat back waiting for the acceptances to roll in. I received 199 rejections and one maybe, from Dr Maitra of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I met with him and he was kind enough to give me a tiny budget and a small space in his lab. I had many many setbacks but after 7 months, I finally created a sensor that could detect mesothelin and thus pancreatic cancer for 3 cents in 5 minutes.

MedCrunch:What do you think has to happen until healthcare systems can leverage everyone’s innovation potential – young, old, patient, non-patient?

Jack Andraka: We need a lot of things to advance. One important issue is open access. Right now scientists give their papers to publishing houses who publish journal articles. These articles are then locked away behind expensive pay walls and are inaccessible to most people around the world, including kids like me who need to read these articles to learn and innovate. I think that after 6 months or so, the articles should be made accessible to people. That way students and patients and the people who care about them can learn and become part of the solution. This has happened with great results by Dr. Quackenbush and multiple myeloma and he received the White House Champion of Change at the same time I did. it was very inspiring to see how open access helped researchers and patients learn from each other and share information. Scientific libraries and librarians are an important resource as well because they come across so much information and can help spread it to people hungry for data and the new advances.

MedCrunch: What do you think is changing? How can other ambitious young people follow your path and get empowered to make a difference in healthcare?

Jack Andraka: I think the internet has changed the pace of innovation. Ideas can be spread so quickly and people are connected to each other so easily. If I read an article I can email the author and sometimes get an answer that day! Kids can ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions and  then learn enough from the internet whether it’s through MOOC’s or YouTube or articles to start themselves thinking and connecting different ideas in new ways. Of course, learning the scientific method at school or though a site like Science Buddies,JHU’s Center for Talented Youth, or Intel’s ISEF site is now possible and easy to do. Learning structured ways to ask and answer a question is so important!

MedCrunch: Lastly, what would you tell a 15 year old that has a similar spirit like you?

Jack Andraka: I’d tell them: If a 15 year old, who did not even know what a pancreas was, could use the internet to create a sensor to detect pancreatic cancer. Just imagine what you could do!

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Ben Heubl is a Health 2.0 advocate and an expert in the innovation business consulting arena of this industry. His main interest is how to use technology to make an impact for patients and hereby targeting the intersection between entrepreneurship, open innovation, technology and large corporations. Ben co-organized TEDMEDlive Bologna and is TEDMED delegate, is non-for-profit founder of Health 2.0 Copenhagen, Medstartr (EU division) and MyHealthInnovationBlog. Meanwhile he is a mentor at HealthXL, works with ICG and supports KairosSociety and its student's engagements in healthcare innovation. You can follow him on Twitter (@benheubl)