The Seven Year-Old Surgeon
Article dated June 2006
Author(s): The Sunday Times
An Extract from the preview of the programme (The Times Dec 04, 2005):
My cure for cancer, by the boy genius
The 'medical Mozart' is sublimely confident of his breakthrough, he tells Cosmo Landesman
Akrit Jaswal is a young Indian who has been called "the world's smartest boy" and it's easy to see why. His IQ is 146.
He began to read Shakespeare at the age of four. He was seven years old when he carried out his first medical procedure and now at the ripe old age of 12 he tells me: "I have discovered a cure for cancer." In his home village in Himachal Pradesh, northern India, Akrit is treated like a god. The local children know him as "the genius". Adults come to him to discuss their ailments and prescriptions. He is a prodigy who has been touted in America and sold to the media as a Mozart of modern medicine. But Akrit has his critics and plenty of people are sceptical about the claims made on his behalf. Some say he is just a very bright boy with an exceptional memory but no real gift for science. Others claim he is the victim of pushy parents who stole his childhood.
In person Akrit doesn't look like your typical boy genius. He doesn't have the big goggles, the jacket with a row of Biros in the top pocket and the boy-wonder bow tie. He has the typical jeans-and-trainers look of a 12-year-old. He is anxious to present himself as just an ordinary boy, but one with an extraordinary brain. "I'm just like any other kid, except when it comes to talking about science." He even boasts he's no "bookworm" or a "boffin". "No, I don't spend all my time reading and studying," he tells me. "I was given a copy of Stephen Hawking's book, but I've never read it."
Akrit came to public attention when in 2000 he performed his first medical procedure at his family home. He was seven. His patient — a local girl who could not afford a doctor — was eight. Her hand had been burnt in a fire, causing her fingers to close into a tight fist that wouldn't open. Akrit had no formal medical training and no experience of surgery, yet he managed to free her fingers. For the first time in five years she was able to use her hand.
I ask him how he managed to carry out the procedure; wasn't he nervous? "No, I wasn't. I have read many medical books and attended many operations. I think I did a better job than most surgeons. They would have opted for plastic surgery, but I didn't need to."
The fact that carrying out such a procedure is illegal doesn't worry him. "Yes, it was illegal. But it does no harm. It's good for mankind. So what if it goes against dead old medical ethics?" Akrit's interest in science began at the age of four. "It was then that I read Gray's Anatomy and books on chemistry. I studied physics up to A-level standard. I was fascinated by science because it could answer all the questions I had about life — how we got here and why we are here. But now I'm older I have to find new answers."
One answer he is confident of finding is a cure for cancer. It's this claim that has brought him worldwide media attention, admiration . . . and derision.
So how does a 12-year-old with no medical training and no lab experience discover a cure for cancer? "I actually made my discovery when I was eight. I did it by reading books on cancer and getting information from the internet. My cure aims at the modification of malformed genes that cause cancer and their successful repair either by the activation of enzymes or direct modification of genotoxic drugs."
Is this boy deluded? A victim of his parents' high expectations? Common sense tells us that 12-year-old boys do not cure cancer, but our belief in the power of the child prodigy makes us wonder: maybe it is possible.
Akrit recently visited London to participate in a forthcoming television documentary about his life (to be shown on Five in January). While here he achieved his dream of trying out his ideas for curing cancer on researchers at Imperial College.
Professor Mustafa Djamgoz, who spent a number of weeks with the boy, told me: "There's no doubt he is a brilliant boy. He really knows his stuff and has put his heart, soul and mind into finding a cure for cancer. But his solution is not that novel. In theory it could work, but it would be premature to say he has found a cure."
Society is ambiguous in its attitude to child prodigies such as Akrit. We admire them, envy them, would like our own children to have their gifts — yet we also want to believe those who are blessed are also cursed with all sorts of emotional and psychological problems. But Akrit refuses to play the victim and is annoyed by reports he was never allowed a normal childhood. "Oh come on," he says with weary resignation. "I had plenty of friends to play with when I was a child and, yes, I had nursery rhymes too."
"Don't you feel your parents put too much pressure on you to succeed?" I ask. "No, I never feel that. My parents never put pressure on me. In fact they're the ones who are always saying you should rest and chill out." I suspect this is not the case. Akrit has long been under considerable pressure to succeed, especially by his father. When Akrit was eight his father resigned from his job as an economics adviser in Delhi so he could devote himself to his son's talents. He moved the family back to their home village and set up a school for his son so his talents could be nurtured. He began a crusade to get the boy into a medical school when he was eight, but no Indian school would accept anyone under 17.
Akrit's father and mother have since separated. She says it was the frustration of not getting the boy into medical school that destroyed the marriage. Before he left, Akrit's father said: "Call me when you cure cancer." The boy has not seen him for more than a year.
At present, Akrit is attending university where he is doing a BSc undergraduate course in medicine. It can't be easy being the only 12- year-old there. The question that hangs over the boy's head is this — will he ever be able to live up to everyone's expectations? What happens if his ideas do not in fact cure cancer? "I will be embarrassed, but I will never give up trying," he says.
Talking to him you get the impression that the most intense pressure to succeed comes from within. Although there's no doubting he is a very gifted boy, such children do not usually go on to do great things when they grow up. Linda Silverman, of the Gifted Development Centre in America, who examined Akrit when he was eight, makes the point that "most gifted people do not seek or achieve fame".
That's certainly true of recent British prodigies. Remember Ruth Lawrence who, at the age of 12, went to Oxford to study mathematics? Today she lives in Israel as an Orthodox Jew. And the ones who go on to succeed can often turn out pretty weird (Bobby Fischer) or die prematurely (Mozart). Only time will tell if Akrit has been blessed or cursed.
According to his mother Raksha Kumari Jaswal, this child genius was an early starter. He skipped the toddler stage and started walking. He started speaking in his 10th month. He was reading Shakespeare at the age of 4. At the age of 7, he performed an operation on a 8 year old girl whose fingers were fused together after being burnt.
He became India's youngest university student and is currently studying for a BSc in Chandigarh University, India. He possesses books such as Gray's Anatomy, and textbooks on surgery, anaesthesia, anatomy, physiology, Cancer, and others. Akrit claims to have mastered them with his daily habit of studying for an hour.
Akrit Jaswal is considered to be a reincarnation in his local village. He is consulted by neighbours and people from surrounding area's regarding ailments, prescriptions and courses of treatments.
He claims to be working on a cure for cancer for several years, based on theories of oral Gene therapy. As almost all of the above information is nothing more than self claims by him and his family, by some he is considered to be another one in the long line of fake child prodigies of India.
A young girl in India badly burned as a toddler, her fingers had fused together and curled into a knotted ball. Her shepherd family could not afford surgery, but they had heard of a remarkable young boy being called the child surgeon. Akrit Jaswal was only seven years old when he operated, successfully, on the eight year old girl to release her fingers.
Akrit Jaswal had a reputation, in the region, for being a medical genius. He has been shown to have the highest I.Q. of any boy his age in India, a country of over one billion people.
He has focussed this phenomenal intelligence on medicine and now, at the age of twelve, claims to be on the verge of discovering a cure for cancer.
An early developer, Akrit was walking and talking by the time he was 10 months old. He was reading and writing by two, and reading Shakespeare, in English, by the time he was five, and is now talking about his theories for oral gene therapy in the fight against cancer.
He is studying for a science degree at Chandigarh College and, at twelve years of age, is the youngest student ever accepted by an Indian University.
Akrit's father left the family a year ago, depressed and exhausted by six years battling with Indian bureaucracy to get his son's intellect acknowledged and resources made available for his cancer research.
Is it possible that this young boy knows something the medical profession does not? Throughout history, scientific breakthroughs have come not only from the established, the learned, and the scholarly, but also from single flashes of insight and inspiration.
Akrit is not phased by his fame and is used to meeting government ministers and press representatives. For ordinary people meeting Akrit, it is very different. When he is in town, they gather for an audience. They come with prescriptions and medicines, seeking advice. They come with ailments and injuries for a diagnosis. They come to see a doctor, a healer. They come to see a guru, and because this is India, there is always spiritual dimension.
Akrit may be famous but, will he be the one to unlock the secrets to a cure for cancer. He was invited to Imperial College, London to find out. He will spend two weeks based at Imperial College having his intelligence tested and talking super-mechanisms, genes and therapies with scientists at the cutting-edge of cancer research.
Akrit must convince Professor Mustafa Djamgoz, a world-renowned research biologist, and his colleague Mr Anup Patel, a consultant urological surgeon, that his ideas are realistic and worth pursuing.
The inquisitors become his friends, Mr Patel and Professor Djamgoz are keen to foster Akrit's enthusiasm, keen to protect him from disappointment, and willing to guide him on his way.
Professor Djamgoz says of Akrit: " He is generating ideas based upon what he knows, in an idealistic sort of way, without being in full grip of reality, withou knowing how difficult it is to turn the ideas into practical realities".
Just how intelligent is Akrit? Team Focus, the UK's leading I.Q. analysts agree to test him. For Akrit this was to prove a disappointment. His exceptional results in verbal and numeracy tests were countered by poor practical tests, particularly in the area of pattern matching. Because of this wide range of results Team Focus chose not to give him a final rating.
Rosemary Facer, a childhood psychologist, put forward the theory that Akrit had been an early developer accounting for the good results and because of this early genius he had missed out on later schooling accounting for the poor practical results. These results do not affect what Akrit may achieve, but he needs help, a wise friend to talk to.
The Professor's analysis is that Akrit needs to obsess less and enjoy more. He thinks Akrit shows great potential but it needs to be properly guided.
Akrit returns home to India, slightly maturer, a little more realistic, but this precocious young man is still convinced that he will find a cure for cancer.THE TRIBUNE
Himachal boy with an IQ
higher than Einstein's
Tribune News Service
Dharamsala, June 14
"His IQ level beats that of Albert Einstein," confirms the Gifted Development Centre, USA.
Meet 11-year-old Akrit Jaswal, a resident of Noorpur, near here, who, after spending over two months with research fellows at the Tata Cancer Institute, Mumbai, and doing research at his personal lab in Delhi, now claims to have had breakthroughs in genetic treatment of cancer and AIDS.
Today, when the Himachal Pradesh School Education Board decided to allow him to take the plus two exams in 2005, nobody raised an eyebrow. "This is just to enable me to have the bare minimum academic qualification for getting my research patented," said Akrit in an interview with The Tribune.
Once out of his lab, Akrit feels, he is no different from friends of his age group. "I talk and walk like any other child. It's just that my brain has developed much faster," he said. On second thoughts, he added he was also more mature than them and could take decisions independently without any hesitation.
Akrit's mother, Anju, said they first realised that their child was special when he would give answers to questions meant for BA students who came to her to take English tuitions. "After advice from relatives and friends, we decided to set up our own school for him so that he could be groomed properly," she said.
But while still in class II, Akrit suggested modifications in the syllabus of class V. He was immediately put to test for class V, which he cleared as a special case.
"But when it came to taking him to the USA for getting tests conducted on him, we had to sell off the school and some other property. His psycho-evaluation was done for 17 days before the Gifted Development Centre came out with its verdict in 2001. Later, he was taken to the Department of Science and Technology, which wanted him to stay in Delhi. So we set up a lab there," said the mother.
All this attention does not bother Akrit. "When I used to walk down the corridors of the Tata Cancer Institute, there were days when nearly 300 patients and doctors would line up to see me. I am very comfortable with the whole thing," he said.
Talking about his research, Akrit said although he had found a technique to treat cancer and AIDS genetically, he has used only chemicals to come to these conclusions. "I have not used any genetic therapy in the lab," he said.But one thing was for sure, he said, his first choice would be to work for his state. "I would like to do a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry and continue with my research in Himachal Pradesh. This would be an expression of my love for the people of my state,'" he said.
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