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Breakthrough: How a Teen Innovator is Changing the World

By Jack Andraka

One day shortly after the midway point of my freshman year, I snuck an article on these things called single-walled carbon nanotubes into my biology class. Those are long, thin pipes of carbon that are each an atom thick and one-fifty-thousandth the diameter of your hair. Despite their extremely small size, carbon nanotubes have these amazing properties. They’re kind of like the superheroes of material science.

To sneakily read this article during class, I had to be very careful.

My biology teacher had this uncanny sense of when I wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t just have eyes in the back of her head. It was like she had eyes on the sides of her head too.

And while I was reading this article under my desk, we were supposed to be paying attention to these other kind of interesting molecules in the body called antibodies. And these molecules are pretty valuable because they react only with one specific protein and are typically used by your immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria.

And it was then, sitting in class, that it suddenly hit me: I could combine what I was reading about—carbon nanotubes—with what I was supposed to be thinking about—antibodies.

I was having one of those moments when it all began coming together in my mind. I could take these nanotubes and mix them with antibodies (think of it as putting meatballs in some spaghetti) so that you have a network that reacts with only one protein—in this case, mesothelin. When the mesothelin reacts with the antibody, they form a larger molecule called an immunocomplex (imagine a super-beefed-up protein molecule). When this gigantic molecule is formed, it actually separates neighboring nanotubes and causes the network to spread, akin to taking a bundle of wires and pulling it apart. When this happens there are fewer connections between the neighboring nanotubes and so there are fewer pathways for electrons to take when traveling through the network, increasing the electrical resistance! So the electrical properties of the nanotubes would change, and that was something I could measure.

I could feel the simple pleasure of all these puzzle pieces linking together in my head… and then… Busted! In the middle of my breakthrough, there was my biology teacher storming up to my desk.
She had that angry look on her face. Again.

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