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Health

Meet the Two Polish Teenage Inventors Revolutionising Bone Health

In collaboration with her peer Joanna Jurek, Polish college student, Dominika Bakalarz, is working to change the way we treat broken bones.
June 12, 2016, 12:00am

"From the very beginning we wanted to do something that will have an impact, that will make someone's life easier," said Dominika Bakalarz with a smile. The young inventor, similar to 300,000 other 18-year-old Poles, has just started her university studies, but there's a slight difference that makes her stand out from the crowd. Dominika is taking steps to change the history of medicine with the bone-healing bioimplant she has designed with her peer Joanna Jurek.

If you've never broken a bone, consider yourself lucky. According to research, almost half of women and 25 percent of men worldwide will experience a bone fracture in their lifetime. For most, it will be a mild discomfort and a chance for their friends to write something silly on the cast—but for those suffering from osteoporosis, it can turn into personal tragedy. Osteoporotic injuries don't heal quickly nor in a healthy way, and contrary to popular opinion, the problem is not only limited to older people. Some researchers even suggest we're reaching an epidemic, which will put a further strain on health budgets (it's estimated that the EU spends over €35 billion [$37.5 billion] on treatment of osteoporotic fractures).

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Inspired by the art of Japanese folding paper and stem-cell technology, the young Polish scientist duo created the Origami BioBandage that can help bones heal faster and easier, which could revolutionize the way we think of fractures—and how we heal them. I met Bakalarz—a programming and bio-mathematics enthusiast responsible for the mechanics and virtual modeling of the implant—a few days after she moved in to Poland's capital from her native city of Opole to start her studies at the University of Warsaw, and only a week before her planned visit to Oxford University.

"I'm used to being on the move. I was living this way through the whole high school period. My parents had to accept that I wouldn't be home for most of the time, as I was taking up workshops and internships. But only now I'm learning to live on my own, sort everything out myself without the help of my family. I've started learning how to cook and made some spaghetti and lasagna," she explained as we looked for a place to sit in the socialist-realist building of the math department. Knowing that I share an affinity to pasta with this award-winning young mathematician made me feel strangely reassured.

Bakalarz put an emphasis on how much other people shaped her success. "It all started with an inspirational maths teacher in my secondary school, who gave me a set of math problems from a maths competition to think about at home. I've spent a few days focusing on them and then brought my solutions to the teacher. Some of them were rubbish, but a few were good! It went off from there. Before, I was equally interested in history, natural sciences, and other subjects, but the teachers realized I had a talent for maths. They supported me and suggested books to read."

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But the person who really helped Bakalarz spread her wings was Joanna Jurek, a young biologist from the town of Piotrków Truybunalski, with whom she conceived and developed the BioBandage idea. The two inventors asked me to point out that the implant is a result of their collaboration and should not be attributed to just one of them.

"In the science world you tend to hear that nothing can be achieved alone these days. Interdisciplinary teams are a key to success. You have to merge different fields of knowledge. It's easier for me to work with a partner—to have someone motivating me, giving me a kick when it's necessary, who supports me, and gets me out of a rare crisis. This gives me a boost," Bakalarz says.

The two met each other on a research trip during a scholarship at the Polish Children's Fund, an NGO that helps talented students meet experienced researchers and take part in university-level classes. Bakalarz was accepted for a long-running scholarship when she was 14. "These kind of trips allow you to attend seminars in the fields you're not specialized in, whether it's maths, biology, or humanities. This broadens your horizon and get's you interested in completely new things," Bakalarzexplained. "When I talk about the Fund at international conferences, a lot of people seem intrigued by the fact [that] we have this efficient structure to help young researchers in Poland."

The friendship between the two girls, which resulted in many months of work on the acclaimed invention, started by accident. "We knew each other from one of the trips, but it was only when [we] got to sleep in one room together that we really started to talk a lot. It was then when we decided to take up a quantum physics internship in Vienna together, even though we didn't know much about quantum physics then. It was in Vienna when, after a few hours of work and another few of wandering through the city, we were riding on the metro and discussing TED presentations that we found interesting. That's when I mentioned a talk by Robert Lang on using origami in engineering based on new mathematic tools. Origami used to be my childhood passion—I was a little artist, I loved to paint, sew, do cut-outs, and all such things!"

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Jurek on the other hand was experienced in bioengineering, thanks to her past project in the field of anti-cancer research. The girls manage to merge their interests into one idea and immediately decided to pursue it. "We ran to the hotel and wrote an email to Robert Lang asking him to tell us a bit more on the use of origami in medical engineering, as he only briefly mentioned it in his TED Talk. When we woke up, the answer was already in our inbox. We were so happy! He suggested we should take a look at a paper by Japanese researchers on the subject of cell origami. It was available on the Internet, and to our astonishment, nobody decided to pursue the idea further. We found it exceptionally interesting—the fact you can use living cell to manipulate matter."

The duo decided to use their new knowledge to create a bioimplant. "The scientists we consulted didn't believe us. They considered the idea belonged to science-fiction," said Bakalarz. Jurek took up another internship during which she conducted in vitro experiments with the base for the implant and stem cells. Meanwhile, Bakalarz found a patron at the Warsaw University of Technology, who helped her to understand the concept of computer modeling—which allowed the girls to test the implant mostly in silico, in a virtual environment without the need of using actual live cells. As she explains, "Experiments with living matter are costly and need a special permit, and on a computer you can do anything you can think of."

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"We want the final product to be as simple for the end user as possible. Think Facebook: it's extremely complicated on the inside, but easy to use. This makes it so popular," Jurek said when I asked her whether such implant will be something reserved for the economically developed and technologically privileged part of the world. "We decided to focus on osteoporosis, as such fractures are hardest to cure. Usually, the metabolism of the bone is faulty and the element needed to heal the bone may be missing. But the implant can be used also in less severe cases, as in fractures caused by falling over."

"The fact that we can actually change something was a big motivating factor. It would be great to put our little brick in humanity's development," said Bakalarz. "Also, the fact we're doing something of our own was important," the young mathematician adds, saying that they wish to develop the project on their own rather than hand it over to someone else. Jurek, her partner, only started thinking about the future of the invention recently. She wants to continue working on it with Bakalarz whether they manage to turn it into a commercial project (the computer model they created might be an option for testing various other ideas) or it becomes an past-time effort. Right now, they are focused on inviting hospitals into the initial phase of clinical testing in order to gather more data for their computer model.

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Bakalarz makes it clear that, in order to develop such a project, you need to constantly learn new things to even communicate with various people involved. How does she cope with that? She says she's learning all the time. "It's not like you only learn things by reading a book. I get to know new things by talking to people, sharing experiences and stories on what we do. Wherever you go, if you have a mind open towards the world, if you ask questions such as why?, what for?, how [does] it work? you'll be able to learn something new. There are so many things I wish I knew more about, but I lack the time…"

She livens up to the memory of folding origami figures and hauling heaps of drawings home during her childhood. "My parents suggested that I give up art for the sake of science," says Bakalarz. "They wanted me to have a future, definitely not to become a professional artist," she explains, and me (an art historian) and my photographer Oliwia (a fine arts graduate) can't help to giggle bittersweetly. "Sometimes I'm angry with myself for not having time to do the things I love. But when I'm able to—especially during summer—I pick up the canvas and start to paint."

"In spacial geometry, when you need to imagine the 3D structures for different angles at the same time, such artistic background is very useful. On the conceptual level, when you're able to connect your aesthetic attitude with analytical thinking, the results can be exceptional. It's hard for me to think of an exact moment, when I applied this directly, but surely it will happen…wait, maybe it happened in this project?"

I decided to ask her about her beloved artists. What she said reminded of all those 19th century painters doing breakthrough research in optics and the Polish new media artist and an MIT lecturer, Krzysztof Wodiczko. Bakalarz immediately began talking about the Mark Rothko exhibit she attended this summer. "His paintings are pretty hard to interpret: three rectangles, one black, the others red. It's easy to dismiss [them] as something anyone can do, but you can also let yourself sink into them, and every person can find different things there. Even the same person, if they look at them at a different time they will think of something different…I love biographies of artists of all kinds—I was fascinated by Eminem's biography [she bursts with laughter], his harsh way and the way he managed to get through it. I try to read different books, maybe except science-fiction." I guess you don't need science-fiction when you put your fantasies into scientific reality on a daily basis.

Despite achieving scientific triumphs in an early age, Bakalarz's words are humble and full of respect towards all the people who helped her on her way. The idea prevalent in capitalist Poland, one that says your hard work is solely responsible for your individual success, turns out to be a myth. "Yes, you have to try hard. But you can't do much without support. Motivation and eagerness will not suffice. You need to find an inspirational and supportive environment to help you. It's often a little thing, a hint on what to do or where to go. You won't go far on your own."

Jurek decided to study in the UK, Bakalarz preferred to stay in Poland. Now separated by 1,000 miles, the inventor duo needs to figure out how to continue working together. "Warsaw has a very high teaching level—mathematical sciences here are among the world's best. Also, it's a great place to live and I have many friends in Warsaw, from the times I used to come here from Opole for workshops and scholarships." But even she thinks about going abroad, not to leave permanently, but to get to know the scientific environments in different places. Whatever the outcome may be, young, talented, and motivated people such as Bakalarz and Jurek remind Poles that they can offer the world much more than cheap labor.