While I waited in the grocery store line recently, I thumbed through the latest People magazine. Expecting to see celebrity gossip, I stumbled across an article about young people who are making a difference in medicine. One young man in particular, Jack Andraka, caught my eye as I remembered seeing him on Ted Talks a few months ago.

Jack is an inspiring teenager who has possibly made one of the biggest discoveries in the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He became interested when a family friend died of the disease. He thought if he could find better ways to detect the disease, he might be able to save lives.

Andraka used Google and Wikipedia to learn all he could about pancreatic cancer and then created an inexpensive test strip that has so far, in preliminary tests, been shown to be 100% accurate. This same technology can also be used to detect lung and ovarian cancer.

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Until this discovery, Jack was doing experiments in his family’s basement. He developed a test protocol for his discovery and sent it to 200 different labs. He was rejected by all but one. The 200th lab was Johns Hopkins.

There he was given a small space to conduct experiments mostly because the doctor in charge was fascinated that a 15-year-old boy had come up with something so advanced. Now he is called the “Edison our times.”

Interestingly, Andraka does not feel he is especially smart. He says he knows many that are smarter and that creativity played a part. You have to have an idea and also the creativity to make it come to life.

The test strip Andraka designed detects mesothelin in the blood. Patients with pancreatic cancer have higher amounts than normal. The strips are inexpensive and the test takes five minutes. Jack is in talks with pharmaceutical companies to develop the technology and won the top prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

I am in awe of this young man’s discovery, but it also makes me wonder what we are doing as medical professionals to find cures to diseases and new ways of early detection. Are we so involved with treating patients that we don’t have the time and energy to devote to research to improve prevention and early diagnosis?

Are you a physician assistant or nurse practitioner involved in research? If so, what are you working on? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

Sharon M. O’Brien, MPAS, PA-C, is a practicing clinician with an interest is helping patients understand the importance of sleep hygiene and the impact of sleep on health.