The $10 million Tricorder X Prize asks entrants to create a handheld mobile platform that can diagnose 15 diseases across 30 patients in just three days. A NASA Ames-based startup called Scanadu is working on a model that will cost under $150. But Scanadu is about to have some competition: a three-person team of Intel Science Fair finalists, led by Jack Andraka, the 2012 winner. The group of kid geniuses—they’re calling themselves Generation Z—is working on a smartphone-size device that can, according to Andraka, "diagnose any disease instantly."
In 2012, Co.Exist spoke to Andraka, a 15-year-old (he’s now 16) who won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for developing a nearly 100 percent accurate paper sensor that detects pancreatic cancer better than anything else out there—it’s over 400 times more sensitive, 168 times faster, and 26,000 times less expensive than today’s methods. We were the first news outlet to speak to Andraka; since our interview, he has become something of a media sensation. And on Wednesday, he hit TED’s stage to talk about his accomplishments.
Generation Z started coming together last year when the team members met at the 2012 science fair. The group started working in earnest this summer and will continue plugging away at least until the X Prize deadline in 2015—Andraka’s senior year of high school.
The team members are all working on different pieces of the tricorder. Andraka says that he is working on "something the size of a sugar cube that can look through your skin and into your bloodstream, look at every single protein in your blood, and diagnose diseases based on that." Another team member is working on a flash drive-size ultrasound machine. Yet another is working on an MRI test that fits on a card.
There are no Ph.D.-clad scientists helping with the project. "It’s all just us, the kids. It’s fun knowing no one’s helping," says Andraka. The group doesn’t have funding, either, but the majority of the members have access to labs. Andraka is hoping that the sensors used in the group’s device will cost under $50, but right now, he says, "We haven’t really dealt with that. We’re just developing the technologies."
Andraka’s mom, Jane, originally inspired him to work on the tricorder. Two years ago, she came down with rat bite fever, a rare disease spread by rodents. Without treatment, the disease can be fatal. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Jane, so they just gave her some penicillin to see if it would help. It ended up saving her life. Eventually, Andraka’s uncle figured out that Jane had rat bite fever simply by typing her symptoms into Google.
"After realizing how incompetent our diagnostic system is, I decided I wanted to get really involved in diagnosing different diseases and making sure you can instantly know why you’re getting sick," explains Andraka.
All of Generation Z’s members live in different places—in fact, that’s where the name came from. "[It’s about] all of us being teenagers. How we’ve all had access to the Internet over the course of our entire lives, and that changes how we collaborate and communicate," says Andraka. "Twenty or 30 years before, maybe we couldn’t have been doing this over the Internet." Today, the group’s major scientific discoveries are being shared over Skype.
As for that pancreatic cancer sensor? Andraka is going to hand the technology off to a company—either Labcorps or Quest Diagnostics, he says. When we first spoke, Andraka predicted that the test would be available within 10 years. Now he thinks it could be ready in just three to five.
Andraka doesn’t have much time for high school, as you might imagine. "The dynamic between me and my teachers is like, 'Oh, there goes Jack again to do something else,'" he laughs. "I do a lot of classes online."