5X5 Episode 18

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5X5 Episode 18
Man Regenerates Finger - Bad Science Reporting
4th May 2008

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5X5 17 5X5 19
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Show Notes

Man Regenerates Finger - Bad Science News Reporting[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and today's topic is: man regrows missing finger. This is a report of a man, Lee Spievak, who reportedly cut off the end of one of his fingers.[1] The injury actually occurred back in 2005, and he was given a powder, so called, quote-unquote, "pixie dust" by his older brother who runs a biotech company called 'Acell', and this is a powder made from the extra cellular matrix taken from pig bladders. They put this powder on the end of his finger and, by reports, the end of his finger regenerated, or regrew. Of course, there are a lot of problems with this story as it is reported. The most important detail, of course, is how much of the actual finger was injured or was cut off, and how much of it actually regrew.

R: Yeah, if you look at the photos… the before photo has his finger, the angle of it is the finger pointing right at the camera?

S: That's right, you're not seeing the nail bed, which is an important detail. But you can see that every joint is present. You can actually tell from the picture that no significant portion of the finger was actually cut off. It was just the very tip of the finger is injured, which contradicts the actual reports that are being given. The doctor who treated him who is a Dr Badylak, and the interviews with Spievak, with the patient, claims that more than the last joint was cut off. He indicated that somewhere in the middle joint of his finger was the piece that was cut off, completely below the nail bed, and that is simply not true. You can tell that by looking at the pictures, but if you take a quick glance at those pictures it is very deceptive. It makes it very difficult to tell how much of the finger was actually cut off.

E: And Steve, the original article on this quotes Dr Badylak as saying this:

"I think that within 10 years we will have strategies that will regrow the bones and promote the growth of functional tissue around those bones, and that's a major step towards eventually doing the entire limb.[2]

S: That may be true, but it has absolutely nothing to do with this specific case. This is a guy who cut his finger and it healed. This is perfectly normal healing. There was nothing unusual about this. There was no regeneration, there was nothing. I mean, maybe that powder formed a good bandage and allowed the finger to heal well. The ends of fingers sometimes can heal very, very well all by themselves. So this is zero new or unusual about this. All this talk in the media, spinning off of this story about regrowing limbs and what not – sure, this is research that is ongoing. But this so called 'pixie dust' doesn't appear to do anything as far as we can tell from the evidence given so far.

J: Plus, the part of his finger that grew back which we're assuming is like what? The last eighth of an inch?

S: Something like that, yeah.

J: If you look at the picture of it after it grew back, the skin doesn't look brand new to me. I mean, it actually looks like the guy's hands are really worn and old. As a matter of fact, if you compare that to the earlier picture the guy's hand looks–

S: Mmhmm

J: –like a different piece of hand.

S: Well,I don't know. The thing that you have to keep in mind is that this story is two years old, and that it has resurfaced. So this could– the 'after' picture could be two years later, in which case it wouldn't look like new skin, it would look perfectly normal. Which, of course, brings up the question of why did this story resurface two years down the road?

B: Well, for a little extra perspective, the most doctors have ever seen in terms of regrowing digits is actually the full last digit of a child's small finger that has been seen. It was beyond the nail bed and it did grow naturally. Now that– it's believed that kids just have this natural ability that they lose soon after leaving childhood. No adult has ever shown that kind of regrowth in the finger ever, and it's believed it can't be done naturally.

J: So, Steve, what do you think is going on here? I mean, is there a sham involved?

S: What I think is going on here is just horrific news reporting. There may be a little self promotion going on on the part of the company. They've gotten two years of media out of this one story, this one dubious story. What happened, and Ben Goldacre writes very well on this, and he points out that when these types of stories come out recently, typically what's happening is that the journalist is a general journalist, they are not part of the science or health news reporting. The science reporters knew that this story was crap, that it smelled, and they wouldn't touch it, and they told their editors this is BS, don't go with it. But the BBC correspondent who, you know, broke the story in this latest round, Matthew Price, was gushing, was uncritical, was un-skeptical and is not a science or health reporter. He doesn't know what he's talking about and he didn't have the experience to realize that there was something very fishy about this story. And then to make matters worse, the BBC news when they reported it, they showed this animation of somebody regrowing more than half of their finger, completely misleading animation tagged on to this story. And those same details that Price got wrong were uncritically propagated throughout the media. The same story was told over and over with the details shuffled around, and with nobody doing any actual science journalism to give the public a real understanding of what was going on. So they basically just completely misled the public on this story.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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