ELISA test beaten by STEM high-schooler: when experience is overrated

Great story. High school freshman, Jack Andraka, develops a paper sensor for detection of blood proteins signaling some early stage cancers. Certain proteins get over-expressed in the blood for different cancers at early stages.  Tests categorized as ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) are part protocol for early cancer diagnostics. Jack’s discovery—now with the patent lawyers and Johns Hopkins—seems factors more efficient and accurate than ELISAs, the first of which was invented over 40 years ago.  For perspective, here’s how ELISA was celebrated only in 2006.

I note:

  • Jack attends public school.
  • Like the rest of us he was also “home-schooled”, i.e, he learned stuff at home.
  • Jack did research outside the advantages, constraints, accoutrements and professional politics of a conventional research grant-based environment.
  • Jack had supportive parents and teachers.
  • He had fun.
  • Jack seems personable, well-mannered and easily conversant with a balance of complexity and simplicity, and people seem to want to work with him. (TRANSLATION: Jack’s emotional IQ doesn’t appear inversely proportional to his conventional IQ.)
  • Jack focused on a little part of a really big something.
  • Jack is 15.

Much cancer work is on treatment. In conventional medicine—whose professional impulses in the grimmest cast mimic complacency if not a more honorable abject surrender—cancer is a given.  Oncology’s whole start. And in truth there are problems about which we know little to do and cancer’s surely among them. Viruses too. They stump us for similar reasons and it’s no coincidence we’ve cured neither.

But this  freshman is focusing on proteomics and detection— upstream. Because everything is a rate. And he’s  valuing the simple proposition of earlier diagnostics—plus better ones—as, yes, a prelude to earlier treatment.

Thinking about big problems can be daunting—cancer is big.  But the ability to focus on a small piece is key.  But research tradition—even in the fine exploratory arena of a progressive Johns Hopkins lab—can sometimes obscure how legitimate little pieces look.  Some fruit, I fear, hangeth too low for view by the fanciest eyes.  Or a more accurate explanation may lie in this random literature from an LSAC publication:

“Many major scientific discoveries of the past were the product of serendipity, the chance discovery of valuable findings that investigators had not purposely sought.  Now, however, scientific research tends to be so costly that investigators are heavily dependent on large grants to fund their research.  Because such grants require investigators to provide the grant sponsors with clear projections of the outcome of the proposed research, investigators ignore anything that does not directly bear on the funded research.”

A Yale management professor said it takes 10 years of doing something to become an expert—there are studies. Yes. It takes volume. Volume takes time. But that’s not the story, increasingly. First, whole industries now rise and die in 10 years. You won’t get that window to “master” in.  Secondly, you’re due to know something after 10 years, but the question is whether it’s optimum. Lastly, even if you get to master something, your frequency of innovation over the course—e.g., Jack-style—is something else. And that’s business’ whole deal.

Quite opposite dismissing children because of youth or no volume, I particularly attend. I follow them on twitter. In science great questions and discovery, as Jack teaches, not only can come early before you’re a conventional expert and often seem to come in part because you’re not, but increasingly in a competitive world, they must.


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