“Pixie Dust helps man grow new finger”

May 1st, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, mail, sun, telegraph, times | 34 Comments »

Very briefly – because this kind of thing irritates me so much that I can’t be bothered to devote a great deal of time to it – in almost every single newspaper and media outlet today you will read about the Pixie Dust which helped a man’s finger grow back: “The man who grew a finger” [BBC], “‘Pixie dust’ helps man grow new finger” [Telegraph], “Man’s finger ‘regrown using pig extract’” [ITN], “Sliced finger grows back” [The Sun], etc.

Allow me to explain why I have good grounds to believe that this is nonsense, and that the journalists concerned have failed in the most basic regard.

[NB I gave this story some chat on the Today programme at 7:43am May 2, listen again here]


Here are some pictures of the finger in the news stories today. Obviously I’d be whinging a lot if it happened to me, but it doesn’t look all that bad, just a bit of missing tissue around the distal phalanx. Specifically there is no missing finger, so we might therefore imagine – without the benefit of a journalist’s special knowledge and training – that there is no “missing finger grows back” story to be written here. Apparently we would be wrong.



This man lost some skin and flesh from the tip of his finger. He did not lose his nail, or bone. Fingers – and I am very keen to hear from anybody working in plastics at the moment – grow back very well. In particular, skin grows back amazingly well: it never ceases to astonish me, when I take a heroic dive from my 1970s pink rollerskates, that a few months later there can be no evidence of any foolishness on my palms, knees, or indeed face. The wound healing process is also fascinating.


This work has not been published, it’s some bloke who went to the newspapers with his amazing story.


The BBC report has a particularly clueless notion of what a clinical trial might look like:

Clinical trial

They hope soon to start a clinical trial in Buenos Aires on a woman who has cancer of the oesophagus.

Even against the very high standards set by Durham Council on the meaning of the word “trial“, that’s pretty dumb.


They appear to have randomly given some treatment to one man – their mate? – outwith a research programme. That represents the loss of a useful data generating opportunity, and some ethicists take a dim view of people randomly using novel experimental compounds on people (I’m not sure I do, depending on the consent issues, but I do think it’s a shame to perhaps miss out on a useful research opportunity).


you will find this story….


The man who grew a finger
BBC News, UK 6 hours ago
The “pixie dust” comes from the University of Pittsburgh, though in the lab Dr Stephen Badylak prefers to call it extra cellular matrix.

Did a man grow his finger back?
guardian.co.uk, UK – 2 hours ago
The powder was mostly collagen and a variety of substances, without any pig cells, said Dr Stephen Badylak, a regeneration expert at the University of

[Note: the above story magically changed to become sceptical at 4pm, approx two hours after this blog post was written. The original credulous version is no longer available.]

Pixie dust’ makes man’s severed finger
Times Online, UK – 5 hours ago
It is technically known as extra cellular matrix and was pioneered by Dr Stephen Badylak at the University of Pittsburgh. For ten days, Mr Spievak applied

‘Pixie dust’ brings scientists closer to growing limbs
ABC Online, Australia – 3 hours ago
He says the powder came from Dr Stephen Badylak, a leading US expert in regenerative medicine. He is experimenting with cells extracted from pig intestines,

‘Pixie dust’ helps man grow new finger
Telegraph.co.uk, United Kingdom – 18 hours ago
The inventor of the powder, Dr Stephen Badylak from the University of Pittsburgh, has pioneered a process which involves scraping cells from the lining of a

Pig extract ‘helps fingers regrow’
The Press Association – 9 hours ago
The powder was mostly collagen and a variety of substances, without any pig cells, said Dr Stephen Badylak, a regeneration expert at the University of

Man’s finger ‘regrown using pig extract’
ITN, UK – 3 hours ago
The powder was mostly collagen and a variety of substances, without any pig cells, said Dr Stephen Badylak, a regeneration expert at the University of

‘Pixie dust’ made from pigs bladder has amazing power to regrow
Daily Mail, UK – 17 hours ago
Dr Stephen Badylak (CORR), of the University of Pittsburgh, told the BBC, ‘There are all sorts of signals in the body. “We have got signals that are good

Scientists create pixie dust to help re-grow lost fingers, limbs
Thaindian.com, Thailand 6 hours ago
And that is a major step towards eventually doing an entire limb, The Sun quoted Chief researcher Stephen Badylak, as saying. (ANI)

Sliced finger grows back
The Sun, UK 19 hours ago
Dr Stephen Badylak, from the lab where the substance has been produced, said: “I think that within ten years that we will have strategies that will re-grow




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34 Responses

  1. emilypk said,

    May 1, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    I did wonder about that one. Many of the sotries showed and after picture but none a before–and one saud he losy half an inch of finger–doesn’t look that way to me.

  2. CynicalWill said,

    May 1, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Is it just me or is it staggeringly obviuos that this chap has not had his finger cut off. I mean I’m sure press ofices get bombarded with hoaxes all the time, but this one seems particularly obvious. In all of the photos you can see all three sections of finger. This just beggars belief…

  3. used to be jdc said,

    May 1, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    I have no idea what Mr Spievak is considering here:

    “I don’t plan on cutting anything more off to find out if I can grow that back,” Mr Spievak insisted.

  4. Allo V Psycho said,

    May 1, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    There is an huge literature on regeneration in salamandars and other animals – presumably Badylak has no acess to scientific search engines. There is even a rather ancient review on growing back finger tips (McLachlan, JC & Usman, T. (1992). Prospects for human digit regeneration. Clinical Anatomy 5: 119-125), which suggests that the trick is not to have gung ho casualty officers sew up the wound with full thickness skin. There’s nothing intrinsically impossible about the idea that an extra-cellular matrix powder could accelerate regrowth, but I would be reluctant to invest in a researcher who doesn’t seem able to design a trial or read the literature. But the REAL point is that we kitties is not rational animals, but story telling animals. We’re fictogenic (just made that word up). It’s the phrase ‘pixie dust’ and a gruey picture that tells and sells the story – truth is not the point in the mind of the writer or the reader. It’s us rational types who are aberrant.

  5. Jut said,

    May 1, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    The key point here is Ben’s selected quotes from The PA,The Mail and The Guardian…they are identical (even though The Guardian has changed their web version of the story now, to indicate this is piss poor science).
    Nothing more than the result of churnalism; recycling material from the wire and calling it your own. No research, no interviews, no fact checking; just cut and paste.

  6. Andrew Taylor said,

    May 1, 2008 at 4:25 pm


    Whatever he’s thinking, the Darwin Awards people will be disappointed.

  7. perspix said,

    May 1, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Not quite Oddbod in Carry On Screaming, is it.

    It’s quite clear, from the available video, that the chap lost the tip of his finger consisting of some skin, subcutaneous fat and some nail.

    You can lose 1cm (down to 3/4 or more of the nail) of your finger and have it all grow back quite normally. Doesn’t look like this chap lost any muscle or bone.

    No doubt the powder concerned has some clinical value worth looking into but the real marvel of this story is nature itself.

    But that doesn’t stop the researchers involved cashing in on the publicity. Perhaps hoping for some funding.

    Media suckered as usual. Rather like Nasa’s periodic “Life on Mars” stories.

  8. emmer said,

    May 1, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    I think reason is returning to the land:

    But Professor Stephen Kaye, a consultant plastic and hand surgeon at Leeds University, poured cold water on Dr Badylak’s claims.

    Asked if he was surprised that Mr Spievack’s finger “grew back” he said: “Not in the slightest.”

    Prof Kaye added: “The pictures I’ve seen on the web show a wound I would have expected to heal and regenerate in any case.

    “The end of the finger is extremely good at regeneration. The pictures we’ve seen on the web show no evidence of loss of bone, nerve or tendon material, but regeneration and repair of skin – which is exactly what the fingertip does.”

    He added that the photographs appeared to portray a “very commonplace transverse amputation of the very end of the fingertip” and not someone who had lost the last phalanx of his finger, as Dr Badylak claimed.

    Prof Kaye said extra-cellular matrix was an acknowldged way of promoting wound healing, but pointed out that there was a “big difference” between healing and regeneration.

    “I don’t want people to have false hopes,” he told the Radio 4’s The World Tonight news programme.

    And according to the Daily Mail:
    “He turned down a skin graft in favour of the “pixie dust” recommended by his brother, a former surgeon and the founder of the firm that makes the powder”.


  9. muscleman said,

    May 1, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    Now I think of it the afforementioned Youngest went to the A&E and they dressed it, but not before putting a meshwork they said was made from seaweed over it which I found interesting and assume was probably a sort of artificial clot encouraging the cessation of bleeding.

  10. emmer said,

    May 1, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    I do admire the manufacturers for their audacious claims – if I was going to market a miracle powder I would’ve gone for a less testable outcome. Will it make me look younger if I sprinkle it on my crows feet?

  11. deadmanjones said,

    May 1, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Pig’s bladders? Isn’t that what fools wave on sticks?

  12. pv said,

    May 1, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    When I was 11 years old, sometime in the last century, I did a similar thing to one of my fingers when I crashed my bike into a concrete lamp post. With a bit of first aid at the hospital, said finger returned to “wholeness” (plus a disgusting scab) after about a month. The only reminder now is a small scar.

  13. Dr Aust said,

    May 1, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    Yes, I smell a marketing gambit.

    Dr Alan R Spievack MD (who someone further up the thread indicated was the patient’s brother) is a co-author of several papers with Dr Badylak (e.g. here). Spievack’s address is listed on the papers as a company called Acell who make extracellular matrix products as scaffolds for tissue re-growth. They don’t, according to their website here, have anything on the market for humans just yet… but one suspects they are, erm, keen to drum up positive PR and investors to help them move their portfolio forward. Dr Badylak’s name appears frequently in the company’s listing of preclinical proof-if-principle work, so he seems to be their main academic connection.

    As ever, the credulousness and lazy lack of fact-checking of multiple “churnalists” is at the botton of this. Plus the “eeew!” factor – it reminds me of those grisly photo-stories mags like Nuts occasionally run on “the man whose knob had to be sewn back on – full shocking pictures inside”

  14. Dr Aust said,

    May 1, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    Seems this story is also rather old – it appeared in Esquire last September, complete with the photos.

    I wonder what triggered the world-wide wave of media interest now? There is an interesting study to be written somewhere on how these “copycat” science story-waves get started and propagate across the media-sphere.

  15. Dr Aust said,

    May 1, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    PS The Esquire version, BTW, has the benefit of being a much more interesting read than the various derived versions.

  16. Sili said,

    May 1, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    Thank you for this. I’ve been waiting to see a sane commentary after I saw the Beeb’s blurb. And kudos on using “outwith”. LanguageLog would be proud (for the BBC mocking as well).

    Twenty odd years ago I got two fingertips crushed in a cogwheel. Nails have been ruined ever since. They grow together with the skin too – cracks and get sore at irregular intervals.

  17. jodyaberdein said,

    May 1, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    The Guardian would seem to have it about right:


  18. mjs said,

    May 2, 2008 at 12:11 am

    The 11:00 a.m. credulous version of the Guardian story.

    Thanks to Google cache, almost no story is ever truly lost.

    bonus text-only old version

  19. mjs said,

    May 2, 2008 at 12:20 am

    well, this is strange. my previous comment (#24) disappears when i log out, is still invisible if i reload the page, but reappears when i log back in. hm.

    anyone else have this?

  20. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 2, 2008 at 2:33 am

    Makes mental note not to come back to look at comments to this article any more – the “Readers’ Knives”, um, section. Yikes!

    I think the original story will have struck most of us as odd – a bit small-scale for a great scientific breakthrough which it obviously should be. Regenerate like Doctor Who… or like Wolverine.

  21. Simon Howard said,

    May 2, 2008 at 9:32 am

    Has anyone asked if he had regenerated from a previous incarnation within the past 76 hours? Remember that Doctor Who grew a whole new hand!

  22. Dr Aust said,

    May 2, 2008 at 9:57 am

    For those just reading here, and not the actual stories, the weirdest thing really is how this story has been kicking around for ages and now has “exploded” across the worldwide media.

    The injury itself apparently occurred back in Aug 2005. The first major story I have been able to find about it is from the Press Association in February 2007, pointed out yesterday on Nature’s “Great Beyond” blog here.

  23. kim said,

    May 2, 2008 at 11:43 am

    Heard you this morning, Ben – thought you got all the points over very well. But what I’m interested in: what is Evan Davies REALLY like?

  24. Birdman said,

    May 2, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    The April issue of Scientific American has an article on the potential of human limb regeneration – ‘Regrowing Limbs: Can People Regenerate Body Parts?’ by Ken Muneoka, Manjong Han and David M. Gardiner (available at www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=regrowing-human-limbs)

    The following comes from the article.

    ‘Potential at Our Fingertips.
    One of the most encouraging signs that human limb regeneration is a feasible goal is the fact that our fingertips already have an intrinsic ability to regenerate. This observation was made first in young children more than 30 years ago, but since then similar findings have been reported in teenagers and even adults. Fostering regeneration in a fingertip amputation injury is apparently as simple as cleaning the wound and covering it with a simple dressing. If allowed to heal naturally, the fingertip restores its contour, fingerprint and sensation and undergoes a varying degree of lengthening. The success of this conservative treatment of fingertip amputation injuries has been documented in medical journals thousands of times. Interestingly, the alternative protocol for such injuries typically included operating to suture a skin flap over the amputation wound, a “treatment” that we now know will inhibit regeneration even in the salamander because it interferes with formation of the wound epidermis. The profound message in these reports is that human beings have inherent regenerative capabilities that, sadly, have been suppressed by some of our own traditional medical practices.’

  25. pv said,

    May 2, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    The profound message in these reports is that human beings have inherent regenerative capabilities that, sadly, have been suppressed by some of our own traditional medical practices.

    I can see this being taken up in CAMworld as another excuse to flog their own pointless, useless interventions. In fact it’s a good example of how doing nothing (almost) is sometimes sufficient. Unfortunately, “nothing” in CAMworld is not free. The more “nothing” you want, the more you pay for it!

  26. used to be jdc said,

    May 2, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Haha, that’s brilliant. Help! Help! I’m being suppressed!

    “The more “nothing” you want, the more you pay for it!” – Wot, like the high dilution homeopathic non-remedies?

  27. heng said,

    May 2, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    I chopped the end of my finger off when I was about 11 getting it caught in a massive iron gate. It removed a good centimetre down to just above the root of the nail (the nail was ripped out at the same time). The end of the bone was nicked.

    To my surprise, the consultant just put it in a bag full of some white goo (pixie goo?) and wrapped the whole thing in a bandage. I had to go back every week or so to get the dressings changed. After about 8 weeks the dressing came off permanently and there was my finger more or less the same as before. Although I now have a bit of a talon rather than a nail.

    The point is, my finger grew back, and I’m not in the paper. Where’s my publicity?

  28. jhayes said,

    May 2, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    Although the story ( in its latest incarnation ) emerged on April 31st on BBC Television News , it was effectively demolished on The World Tonight (www.bbc.co.uk/worldtonight)
    the same day ( 10pm )by Professor Simon Kay of Leeds University . You can hear him via ” listen again ” . His comments formed the basis of the Guardian putdown published the next day .

  29. ScottishNaturalist said,

    May 3, 2008 at 6:37 am

    What a shock, the media gets it totally wrong.

  30. leo said,

    May 27, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    [URL=http://edition.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/05/26/regrowing.body.parts/index.html#cnnSTCVideo]Another pixie dust tale[/URL]

  31. thelimpingtoad said,

    June 2, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    oh yeah… and a few more things:
    ACell isn’t the one who “leaked” the story. In fact they openly admit that this wasn’t a clinical test and i’m sure Dr. Badylak would admit that his finger tip COULD have regrown on its own. The fact is that another doctor suggested that they cut some skin from the plane hobbyist’s back and create a nub out of it. The brother just suggested to use this instead.

    As for the “Expert” Prof. Simon Kay, I am skeptical after researching him (www.plastic-surg.co.uk/about-sk.htm) that he is even qualified to comment on biomedical engineering since he is a COSMETIC SURGEON.

    But there is evidence of his knowledge of chickens as seen in his 2003 Publication titled, “Happy hens lay bigger eggs”.

    I won’t sit here and say that he could have a particular interest in instilling doubt that there could be a revolutionary technique which would make his job obsolete… but well… he sort of has a bit of a conflict of interest, right? I think his claim that it is “Junk Science” is a bit premature and uninformed. He might have just left it that the man could easily have regrown the tip without the ECM. But to suggest that regenerative medicine is “Junk Science” is totally off-base.

    It is funny too that in 1984 he worked on a paper called, “Spontaneous healing and relief of pain in a patient with intractable vasculitic ulceration of the lower limb following an intravenous infusion of prostacyclin”….

    and according to this source:

    “Prostacyclin plays an important role in inflammatory glomerular disorders by regulating the metabolism of ECM” content.karger.com/ProdukteDB/produkte.asp?Doi=54201

    Sooo… i’m no scientist but it sort of sounds like the paper he worked on supports the use of ECM as regenerative medicine.

    But when all the dust clears maybe Dr. simon kay may have a chance at an acting career since he is now listed on imdb for his 15 min in the spotlight.

  32. dustypixie said,

    June 7, 2008 at 10:21 am

    The story is obviously not a hoax when you dig deeper.

    I put it on the other page and here it is again so nobody misses it.


  33. dustypixie said,

    June 7, 2008 at 11:02 am

    To the Editor:

    Please prominently display a retraction for each of your finger regeneration articles.

    See the comments for the reasons.

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