15-year old Jack Andraka’s life-saving cancer test proves tenacity is a key ingredient of invention

 

This news item caught my eye yesterday, via Twitter. I wouldn’t normally bet more than small change on the Daily Mail getting its facts right, but the detail in the story seems reasonably convincing.

US inventor Jack Andraka is just fifteen years old. He’s invented a cheap and easy to use test for early pancreatic cancer, a disease that is currently hard to detect until its late stages, and so kills 19 out of every 20 victims within five years. Jack’s invention could massively improve survival rates.

So as inventors go, Jack Andraka is already up there with the best, and all before he’s left school. And it’s not as though his idea is simple. It involves carbon nanotubes mixed with human mesothelin-specific antibodies – items not found in many school labs. Without doubt it’s serious science.

From the point of view of someone who deals in invention advice and has a thought or two on the importance of invention, I find that two things make this story really stand out.

First, Jack reportedly approached 197 scientists for help with his research, and was rejected by all of them. Some – and this should come as no surprise to any inventor – told him his idea wouldn’t work. He was eventually given lab space and mentoring by Dr Anirban Maitra, a professor of pathology and oncology at Johns Hopkins University. 

It would be good to know what Dr Maitra saw in Jack that his 197 peers didn’t, because they certainly need to learn a few lessons from him about taking external ideas seriously. In the business world, inventors are used to having their ideas dismissed out of hand. But in the scientific world, can those who reject new ideas out of prejudice or indifference really call themselves scientists? Or are most scientists only comfortable following well-beaten paths?

Second – in the face of wall-to-wall rejection, Jack didn’t give up. This is hugely important. All the evidence would have said: Let it go, do something else. Had he shelved his idea – and who could blame a 15-year old for bowing to the ‘greater wisdom’ of nearly 200 professional scientists? – there would be no early test for pancreatic cancer and patients would continue dying. Only now they might be dying needlessly.

Jack Andraka’s tenacity and conviction is a characteristic shared by many inventors, both successful and unsuccessful. Without it, there would be far less invention. But without the need for it, there might be tidal waves of invention and innovation.

Jack’s story illustrates – not for the first or last time – one of the uncomfortable truths of invention: as a society we start by not welcoming, not valuing, not supporting inventive individuals. Only when they succeed and grab headlines do we think they’re wonderful.

Something badly wrong there…

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