Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Teen science wonder Jack Andraka, and the pace of medical progress.


When I worked as a substitute teacher, I did like the AP assignments the best.  I worked in northern Virginia, and teen scientist Jack Andraka is closer to Baltimore (yes, the Orioles), but I did have a few like him from time to time.
  
Forbes has an interesting story “Why the Biotech Whiz Kid Jack Andraka Is not on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List”, by Matthew Herper, from January 2014, here.  The analysis basically reflects the difficulty in certifying medical tests and therapies, no matter how good they look at first.  Anyone, for example, would like a cancer treatment that avoids the horrors of chemotherapy.  Offhand, it would sound as if the basic technic (carbon nanontubes, etc) might lead to other tests of urgent public health need. One would be able to detect Ebola before it shows any symptoms, for example.  It sounds as though this is a generic kind of technology that could someday at least supplement Elisa and Western Blot, procedures well known publicly since the HIV epidemic started in the 1980s.
    
But it will take a lot of validation to certify it.  Anything in medicine does. 

  
This is a serious public health issue.  The ability to stop the next pandemic (whether natural in cause or even bioterror) could depend on being able to develop and certify a test quickly, and, even more important, a vaccine.  We need to get with it on a vaccine for H5N1 bird flu, and on SARS-MERS type disease. 
   
In the meantime, Jack (according to Wikipedia) will enter Stanford next fall, probably having plenty of opportunity to meet Mart Zuckerberg around Palo Alto CA, who was indeed on the under 30 list.  (Forbes really likes business and tech people first, anyway.)  Then, there is medical school, I would presume.  And then internship and residency.  All of this takes some years, before becoming publicly on the front lines of oncology research. Medicine is a unifocal life at first. And there are real life patients, whether at NIH or regular hospitals. Is there time for kayaking in the Russian River?
    
Forbes had published an article in February 2013, by John Nostra, “The genius of raising brilliant kids: A conversation with Jack Andraka’s parents”, link here.  Lost in the limelight are the considerable accomplishments of Jack’s older brother Luke, now attending Virginia Tech (apparently, judging from the Forbes piece), also noted in Jack’s Wikipedia article.   State schools (UNC comes to mind) love brilliant out-of-state students. 
  

I recall the day I was “initiated” into the Science Honor Society when I was a senior in high school.  We had dinner party in the basement of “The House” (my parents), Dec. 9, 1960, two days before a big blizzard.  Everyone gave a talk (in front of the family grandfather clock face).  One person named Bob Bast gave a talk about “lysing leucocytes” that sounded like a strange preview of discussions about how AIDS and HIV infection develop, 25 years down the road in history.  I talked about whether silicon could replace carbon in alien life (not likely that it really could).  The Washington-Lee physics teacher (Herman Oberle) who was the sponsor, would lose his job in about a year, work as a traveling lecturer, and then pass away from Hepatitis B.   Times really do change in this many decades.
     
In the meantime, when I did my stint of subbing over forty years later, I would find the biggest demand on teachers quantitatively was at the basic skills ends.  Some of them needed fathering skills that I was not prepared to give them.  

First two pictures:  from Franklin Institute, Philadelphia (trip last week); inside of a heart model shown. 

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