This article was originally published on VICE Poland
"We just wanted to do something that will have an impact, that will make someone's life easier," said Dominika Bakalarz. The 18-year-old Polish inventor had just started university when I spoke to her late last year, yet she was already taking steps to change the history of medicine with the bone-healing bioimplant she designed together with her friend 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 ( in 2010, the cost of osteoporosis, including pharmacological intervention in the EU was estimated at €37 billion).
Inspired by the art of Japanese folding paper and stem-cell technology, Bakalarz and Jurek created the Origami BioBandage – an implant that can help bones heal faster and easier. The implant could revolutionise the way we think of fractures and how we heal them. I met Bakalarz – a programming and bio-mathematics enthusiast who is responsible for the mechanics and virtual modelling of the implant – a few days after she'd moved to the Polish capital from her native city of Opole to begin her studies at the University of Warsaw. She was set to visit Oxford University the following week for a conference.
In the science world, interdisciplinary teams are a key to success. You have to merge the 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.
"I'm used to being on the move, even during high school. My parents had to accept that I wouldn't be home most of the time, as I was constantly doing workshops and internships. But I'm only really learning to live on my own now. I'm learning to cook for example," she explained as we looked for a place to sit in the maths department building.
Throughout our conversation, Bakalarz does not neglect to credit her teachers for helping her realise her potential: "It all started with a great teacher in my secondary school, who gave me a set of maths problems from a maths competition to work out at home. I spent a few days on them and then brought my solutions to the teacher. Some of them were totally wrong – but some of them were good. That's how it all started. I was also interested in history and natural sciences but my teachers quickly noticed I had a talent for mathematics."
But the greatest influence on Dominika has been Joanna Jurek – the young biologist who conceived and developed the idea for the BioBandage together with her. "In the science world, you often hear that nothing can be achieved alone these days. Interdisciplinary teams are a key to success. You have to merge the 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, someone who supports me and gets me out of a rare crisis," Bakalarz told me.
The two met 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 thre when she was 14. "These kind of trips allow you to attend seminars in the fields you're not specialised in, whether it's maths, biology or humanities," Bakalarz explained. "When I talk about the Polish Children's 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."
Bakalarz and Jurek met through the fund. "We met each other on one of the trips, but it was only when we were assigned the same bedroom that we really became friends. We decided to take up a quantum physics internship in Vienna together, even though we didn't know much about quantum physics then. One day in Vienna, after a few hours of work and another few of wandering through the city, we were riding on the tube and discussing TED Talks 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."
Jurek on the other hand was experienced in bioengineering and had done a project in the field of anti-cancer research. The girls merged 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 next morning, he'd replied – he suggested we take a look at a paper by Japanese researchers on the subject of cell origami. It was available online, and to our astonishment nobody had pursued the idea further. We found it exceptionally interesting – the fact you can use living cells to manipulate matter."
The duo decided to use their new knowledge to create a bioimplant. "The scientists we consulted were sceptical to say the least. They thought it sounded like 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 modelling. That allowed them to test the implant mostly in silico – a virtual environment where they didn't need to use actual live cells. "Experiments with living matter are costly and need a special permit, while on a computer you can do anything you can think of," she explained.
"We want the final product to be as simple as possible," Bakalarz said when I asked her whether such an implant would be available in less privileged parts of the world. "We decided to focus on osteoporosis, when fractures are hardest to cure. In those cases, the metabolism of the bone is usually faulty and the element needed to heal the bone may be missing – which is where the implant comes in. But the implant can be used in less severe cases too, like normal fractures that are caused by someone falling over."
"It was so important to the project that we were doing something of our own," Bakalarz says, adding 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 or it becomes something they'll work on in their free time. 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.
Bakalarz makes it clear that in order to develop such a project, you need to constantly learn new things and ask yourself questions. "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 an open mind – if you ask questions like why?, what for?, how does it work? – you'll learn something new. There are so many things I wish I knew more about, but I just don't have the time."
She lights up when she remembers folding origami figures and hauling heaps of drawings home during her childhood. "My parents encouraged me to give up art for the sake of science," says Bakalarz. "They said they wanted me to have a future, definitely not to become a professional artist," she explains to me (an art historian) and my photographer Oliwia (a fine arts graduate). "When I have time I still like to paint."
"In spacial geometry, when you need to imagine the 3D structures for different angles at the same time, it's useful to have a bit of an artistic background." I ask her who her favourite artists are. Bakalarz immediately began talking about the Mark Rothko exhibit she saw 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. And I was fascinated by Eminem's biography, the circumstances in which he grew up and the way he managed to get through it. I try to read different books – although I never read science fiction." I guess you don't need science-fiction when you put your fantasies into scientific reality on a daily basis.