5 teenage cancer innovators
Brittany Wagner taught a computer to diagnose breast cancer, a feat that required 600 hours of coding as well as the running of 7.6 million trials. In other words, this 17-year-old has been very busy for the past few years. That’s right, Wagner — who was named the winner of Google’s second annual International Science Fair yesterday — isn’t even old enough to vote.
“I started in the 7th grade,” Wagner tells ScientificAmerican.com. “In school we were researching the future, and my part of the future that I was researching was future technologies. I grew fascinated by artificial intelligence. I went home that night, and I bought a computer programming book and, with no experience, decided that was what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”
Wagner created an artificial neural network, essentially a program that learns as it encounters more data, and trained it to differentiate between benign and malignant breast tissue. The data came from fine needle aspirates, currently the least invasive but also the least conclusive test for breast cancer. Wagner’s network is 99.1% sensitive to malignancies and, as it learns more, should only get better. Down the road, Wagner hopes to open up the network to hospitals. With more research, the least invasive test for breast cancer could become the most accurate.
“I want to be on the frontier of cancer research, finding the cures that are going to save lives and doing things with computer science that can be the technologies of the future,” says Wagner.
As we at TED have learned, many teenagers are interested in finding new solutions to cancer. After the jump, four young people who’ve taken the TED stage to talk about their research.
Pancreatic cancer — which claimed the life of Sally Ride, the first woman in space, this week — is extremely deadly, with only 5.5% of those diagnosed surviving past five years. In a talk given during the TED2013 Talent Search, 15-year-old Jack Andraka explains his cheap and easy test for the early detection of pancreatic cancer, using carbon nanotubes. (Read our Q&A with Jack.) While Andraka stresses that more testing is needed, someday it could be a test that doctors give patients during routine checkups.
Microbiology prodigy Eva Vertes was only 19 years old when she spoke at TED2005 about cancer stem cells. In the talk below, she presents research that suggests cancer might be a repair response to damage to stem cells in the lungs, liver, bones, etc. The implication she is testing? “It’s possible, although far-fetched, that in the future we could think of cancer being used as a therapy,” she explains in the talk below.
At the 2011 Google Science Fair, three young women swept the top prizes. The trio presented their award-winning projects at TEDxWomen that year. Then-13-year-old Lauren Hodge studied the formation of carcinogens in cooking chicken and found a surprising result — that maybe you don’t really want the grilled chicken after all. Meanwhile, Shree Bose researched how chemotherapy resistance happens in ovarian cancer — a breakthrough that could improve future treatments. Watch both young women present their findings below.
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5 teenage cancer innovators