Local High School Student Aims to Make “Star Trek” Gadget a Reality

He may not have a driver’s license, but he has an international patent.

By: Nicholas Hunt

Almost as soon as Jack Andraka, a sophomore at Glen Burnie’s North County High School, won the top prize at last year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, he’d decided on his next project. Not satisfied with winning $100,000 for developing a five-cent paper strip that stands a chance of becoming the world’s best—and cheapest—test for pancreatic cancer, Andraka set his sights on something bigger: Qualcomm’s $10-million Tricorder X-Prize.

After reading about the international competition to bring the tricorder—Star Trek’s legendary piece of medical technology—to life, Andraka gathered four friends he’d made at the Intel fair to pursue the prize. “I just thought it would be cool to have a team of all high-school students,” he says.

All they have to do to win is create a wireless, handheld device capable of monitoring a patient’s vital signs and diagnosing 15 diseases ranging from sleep apnea to atrial fibrillation.

Andraka, 16, and his partners hope by the end of the year to develop a working prototype that can be used to diagnose most of the diseases and to have a refined product by the time the contest closes in 2015. So far, all their communication has been via Skype, but they plan to spend the summer working together at either Harvard or MIT.

For his portion of the project, Andraka is working on a handheld MRI machine and a sugar-cube-size device that will measure the concentration of various proteins in the bloodstream and, with the help of proprietary software, diagnose diseases based on what it finds.

Although the researchers are young, they’re not without resources. All have access to labs—Andraka himself spends about 25 hours a week working at DC’s Naval Research Laboratory. With that sort of time commitment, it may be no surprise that he’s never seen an episode of the show that inspired the project. Says Andraka: “I mostly don’t watch TV.”

This article appears in the May 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.