7 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know about The Paralyzed Man Whose Nose Helped Him Walk Again


My New Old Self has succumbed to the reported pulling power of the Enticing List format. Apparently grillions more of you will read this article if you are lured by this kind of headline. The key is to start with a number – of things which are surprising, shocking, outrageous…

The 7 Surprising Things I’m about to list for you are all about the first person in the world to recover from a severed spinal cord. Darek Fidyka was paralyzed from the chest down and had been using a wheelchair since his devastating injury 4 years ago. Now sensation has now returned to his legs and the thirty-eight-year-old man is beginning to walk again with braces and a frame. His bladder and sexual functions have improved. It’s all thanks to a cell transplant from his nose.

You may find that surprising enough. Prepare to be further surprised.

1. Who knew that the nose can regrow cells?

The paralyzed man’s entire nose wasn’t transplanted onto his broken back (though a nose has been successfully transplanted to a forehead before, and later attached to the middle of a face).

new nose grown on forehead of man in China

New nose grown on forehead of man in China to replace his injured nose.

What the surgeons did with the nose of the paralyzed man was to remove one of his olfactory bulbs, the part that’s used to smell. With all the chemicals we breathe in these days, the nerve fibers involved in smelling are often damaged. No problem, the nose grows new ones. As reported in the latest issue of Cell Transplantation, when nose cells were injected into the man’s spinal cord they did what nose cells always do: they regenerated.

2. This has got to be the best thing ever to come out of a stabbing.

Fidyka was walking down the street in Poland when he was repeatedly knifed until his spinal cord was completely cut. It was this brutal attack that led to this medical breakthrough in treating paralysis.

3. Thank you, lab rats.

You think about those poor rodents who spend their lives in laboratory cages and you hope it’s painless and something good comes out of it. Rest assured that lab rats played a significant role in the research that led to this spinal injury repair breakthrough. The British research team leader suspected that nasal cells could treat spinal injuries in 1985. He tested his theory on rats until he finally proved it in 1997. Only then did he move on to humans.

I think the eureka moment for me was Christmas in 1997, when I first saw a rat that couldn’t direct its hand – put its hand out to me. It was two o’clock in the morning, by the way. That was the eureka moment because I realised that all my thoughts that the nervous system can be repaired are true.

lead researcher Professor Geoffrey Raisman of University College London’s Institute of Neurology

lab rat

Many a medical breakthrough is due to laboratory experimentation on these creatures.

4. Did messing with the man’s nose affect his sense of smell? Yes, in a good way.

It seems that Fidyka suffered from allergic sinusitis before his nose-back operation. So badly that he was starting to lose his sense of smell. After his surgery not only can he walk again but his sinusitis is better and he has recovered some of his sense of smell.

5. There is a down side.

The bad news is not life-threatening but cosmetic. Those regenerating nasal cells also have the effect of ensuring that your nose continues to grow throughout your life. And it’s not growing smaller. Seriously, have you noticed your nose looking slightly bigger lately? You weren’t just imagining it. It gets worse: along with the non-stop growing, gravity and aging cause skin to lose elasticity so your schnoz droops as you get older.

American singer and comedian Jimmy Durante nicknamed his prominent nose The Schnozzola, from the Yiddish word, schnoz.

American singer and comedian Jimmy Durante nicknamed his prominent nose The Schnozzola, from the Yiddish word, schnoz.

6. This research is an example of international collaboration between scientists and public support for medical innovation.

The man whose nose made him walk again is a fireman from Bulgaria. His stabbing occurred in Poland. The cell transplantation treatment was developed by scientists in London. The surgery was done at Poland’s Wroclaw University Hospital. The research was funded by the UK Stem Cell Foundation, together with the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation, which was founded by a British chef whose son was paralysed in a swimming accident. Too bad that celebrity quadriplegic Christopher Reeve didn’t live to see The Paralysed Man Whose Nose Helped Him Walk Again. The Superman actor was recently honoured at the New York Comic-Con convention, ten years after his death, for his funding of paralysis therapy and research.

7. Is this nose-beats-paralysis story too good to be true? Some say so.

At first it seemed that all the superlatives were – dare I say, on the nose? A miracle of modern medicine. A world first. More impressive than man walking on the moon, according to the lead researcher. But some of his fellow neurologists took a more cautious view of this development.

One case of a patient improving neurological impairment after spinal cord knife injury following nerve and olfactory cell transplantation is simply anecdotal and cannot represent any solid scientific evidence to elaborate upon. In fact, there is no evidence that the transplant is responsible for the reported neurological improvement… The use of these cells for spinal cord injury repair have been implemented for 30 years now with very controversial results in rodents, non human primates and patients. Extreme caution should be used when communicating these findings to the public in order not to elicit false expectations on people who already suffer because of their highly invalidating medical condition.

– Dr Simone Di Giovanni, Chair in Restorative Neuroscience, Imperial College London quoted by the Science Media Centre

Medical history shows that promising spinal injury treatments in the past couldn’t be replicated. And it’s hard to rule out the remote possibility of spontaneous regeneration. So the study must be widened to find out if other people’s noses can cure their paralysis.

The results of this case report will need to be confirmed in a larger group of patients with similar types of spinal cord injury before such stem cell transplants can be said to be an effective treatment for spinal cord injuries. The results will undoubtedly give hope to many people affected by paralysis as a result of spinal cord injury. However, while very promising, there are still many steps to go until a new treatment is found that gives complete functional recovery from severe spinal cord injury.

UK government’s National Health Service blog

Sure, more studies are needed. It’s as plain as the ever-expanding nose on My New Old Self’s face.



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