How a 15-Year-Old Googled His Way to Revolutionizing Cancer Detection

by @Spitz

The press has recently gone wild celebrating what seems like a fantasy wunderkind tale, that of a teenager from Maryland who on his own initiative developed a non-invasive, five minute test for pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer that is 168 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive, and over 400 times more sensitive than current diagnostic assays.

Before you call BS on this seemingly unbelievable story, check out Mr. Jack Andraka’s TED Talk. In his own words you’ll discover how Jack was deeply moved by the passing of a close family friend from pancreatic cancer, a personal tragedy that motivated him to find a way to simplify and improve diagnostics for the devastating disease. Using his “go-to” source for information, Google, Jack keyword searched his way into medical history.

What makes this story even timelier and poignant is how it represents the perfect storm of digital health:

The empowered e-Patient and e-Caregiver

Although Jack was powerless to assist his family friend while he was alive, the spirit of sympathy, connectedness, and wanting to help spurred Jack’s quest for earlier diagnosis, driving him to overcome every barrier until an effective solution was discovered, saving future patients.

The Internet as open data source

As Jack mentions near the close of his TED Talk, the Web empowers billions of people throughout the world with a treasure trove of instantaneously accessible global information, enabling eager amateurs and seasoned professionals alike to dive into data and change the course of science and innovation.

Digital channels as connection conduits

Not only did Jack use the Web to choose the right mesothelin biomarker and creatively meld it with a nanotube testing mechanism, but he personally emailed two hundred scientists with his grant proposal, finally finding a single insightful researcher willing to take a risk on this precocious teen.

Paradigm shift from outside the entrenched system

Much like Thomas Kuhn theorized, scientific change and novel invention usually comes from a state of crisis, introduced by an outsider with little bias and loaded with fresh perspectives. In this sense, who better than a teenager armed with nothing but a computer, his imagination, and tireless determination?

Jack’s story is inspirational to all digital health users, entrepreneurs, and advocates who celebrate the amazing opportunities that lie at the unique convergence of health, communications, and technology. After all, if a Googling teenager can change the face of cancer detection, imagine what an entire generation of wired mavericks can do?


Michael Spitz , known most often as just "Spitz," is Editor-in-Chief of the Pixels & Pills and a prollific tweeter, blogger, and article writer, active in digital health across all specialties. Follow him @SpitzStrategy.



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