Man regrows finger with pig “pixie dust”: Junk science?

Lee Spievak, a 69-year-old Ohio hobby shop worker, has apparently regrown his finger—over just four months!—after slicing off the top half-inch in the propellor of a model airplane (doctors were unable to attach the severed bit, as Spievak couldn’t find it after the accident). The newly grown replacement, which sprouted from the stump, is perfectly formed, and contains tissue, nerves, nail, skin and even a fingerprint.

The treatment—a powder called extra cellular matrix—comes from the cells that line a pig’s bladder, and was invented by Dr Stephen Badylak from the University of Pittsburgh. Spievak’s brother Alan (who works in regenerative medicine) sent it to him to try out. Every day for 10 days, Spievak sprinkled a bit of this “pixie dust” on his finger. Apparently after just two applications, he saw a difference.

“Each day it was up further. Finally it closed up and was a finger. It took about four weeks before it was sealed,” Spievak told BBC. He now has “complete feeling, complete movement.”

Australian researchers say it worked because no nail, bone or muscle needed to be regrown.

Dr Badylak said: “I think that within ten years that we will have strategies that will re-grow the bones, and promote the growth of functional tissue around those bones. And that is a major step towards eventually doing the entire limb.”

The miracle powder’s now being tested on a Buenos Aires woman who has cancer of the oesophagus, and the US military’s going to look at regrowing the fingers of injured soldier as well.

UPDATE: Days after this “pixie dust” story was reported around the world (including by such reputable sources as the BBC), it has by now largely been discredited. In an interview with The Guardian, Simon Kay, professor of hand surgery at the University of Leeds, says: “It looked to have been an ordinary fingertip injury with quite unremarkable healing. This is junk science.” What’s more, the details of Dr. Badylak’s story, as repeated in the media, have now changed more than once. Let this be a lesson, the paper suggests, “that the media is a confusing and inappropriate place to communicate new and unpublished epoch-making scientific breakthroughs.”

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