Jack Andraka

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Image from the tumblr blog Faith In Humanity Restored. Click to go there.

Reading about 16-year-old American Jack Andraka, the scientist who developed an early-detection test for pancreatic cancer, and what he has achieved through curiosity, determination and hard work is powerful stuff. I first came to know about him from the Facebook page of Pink Dot SG a few days ago, when I read about him being honoured by the Pope with an award in Rome. The International Giuseppe Sciacca Award, which is given to young adults the Vatican considers to be positive role models.

A few years ago when Jack was 13, a close family friend passed away from pancreatic cancer, and Jack felt compelled to learn more about the disease. He went online to find answers, and was shocked to learn that over 85% of pancreatic cancer patients were diagnosed late, and that the current tests used for this are terribly outdated and more than 60 years old. Not to mention prohibitively expensive at US$800 per test, and inaccurate, missing 30% of all pancreatic cancer.

If I watch only one video a year, that’s fine as long it has the same significance of Jack’s TED talk below. I felt impressed and hopeful for the future, yes, if more young people are like him. But also scared and angry about the current state of testing for pancreatic cancer. If people in so-called First World countries who have the means to pay for their medical tests and treatments can still be so screwed, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The Advocate.com article also mentioned that Jack is “in negotiations with a couple of biotech firms to refine and market the test, which would likely be available to the public in five to 10 years.” I hope that it will still be affordable and accessible to everyone by the time it does reach the market.

From his bio page at Ted.com:

After Andraka’s proposal to build and test his idea for a pancreatic cancer detector was rejected from 199 labs, the teen landed at Johns Hopkins. There, he built his device using inexpensive strips of filter paper, carbon nanotubes and antibodies sensitive to mesothelin, a protein found in high levels in people with pancreatic cancer. When dipped in blood or urine, the mesothelin adheres to these antibodies and is detectable by predictable changes in the nanotubes’ electrical conductivity.

In preliminary tests, Andraka’s invention has shown 100 percent accuracy. It also finds cancers earlier than current methods, costs a mere 3 cents and earned the high schooler the 2012 Intel Science Fair grand prize.

And according to Wikipedia:

Jack has been openly gay since he was 13,and discussed that in interviews with The New Civil Rights Movement,the London Evening Standard,and Washington’s MetroWeekly,among others. When asked to be interviewed about his sexual orientation, Jack responded, “That sounds awesome! I’m openly gay and one of my biggest hopes is that I can help inspire other LGBT youth to get involved in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics]. I didn’t have many [gay] role models [in science] besides Alan Turing.”


Pope Francis


Photograph by Agência Brasil, a public Brazilian news agency, via Wikipedia. Click to go there.

Pope Francis was born to Italian parents in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 17th December 1936, and named Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He is the 266th and current Pope of the Catholic Church. He worked briefly as a chemical technician before entering seminary and ordained a priest in 1969. He became Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. Following the resignation of Pope Benedict in February 2013, Pope Francis was elected. He chose the papal name Francis in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi.

I first read about him honouring American teenage (and openly gay) scientist Jack Andraka on the Facebook page of Pink Dot SG a few days ago. I’m happily stunned by this news. I don’t know where to begin. A sixteen year old scientist? Wow, that’s amazing. Who made a breakthrough in cancer research? Oh my God, that’s incredible. Pope Francis honouring his achievement? That’s wonderful.

Jack was honoured with the International Giuseppe Sciacca Award, which is given to young adults whom the Vatican considers to be positive role models. On Advocate.com I read that Jack Andraka had said in an interview:

“It’s really amazing to be recognized by the Vatican, especially as a gay scientist. I mean this would be unheard of just a few years ago. To be part of this bridge of progress is really amazing. It just shows how much the world has grown to accept people that are gay and are LGBT. It’s really amazing.”

A few months ago, I also came across on the blog Bryan Patterson’s Faithworks on Pope Francis touching on homosexuality when he said, “Who am I to judge them?”.

Huffingtonpost.com quoted the Wall Street Journal that the Pope’s comment about homosexuality was in context of a question about gay priests. He was on the plane back to Rome from Rio where he had visited slums and prisons, and presided over a Mass for three million people at Copacabana Beach. On the plane, he was taking questions from reporters and he spoke about gays and the reported ‘gay lobby’.

“Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” the pontiff said, speaking in Italian. “You can’t marginalize these people.”

Pope Francis is much admired by many people around the world, myself included, for his humility and his concern for the poor, for his compassion for others regardless of backgrounds and religious beliefs, and for his choosing to live more modestly when he has access to luxuries at the Vatican. Long before he became Pope, he was already known for his humility and leading a simple lifestyle. For example when he was Cardinal in Buenos Aires, he was taking public transport to get around, and chose to live in a small apartment rather than in an elegant bishop’s residence, and cooked his own meals.