The secret to curing paralysis is something everybody already has inside them.

Image via Thinkstock

Darek Fidyka was paralysed from the chest down in a knife attack in 2010, when one of his assailant’s vicious blows severed his spinal cord. Doctors gave the Polish fire fighter a one per cent chance of recovery.

Now, following a ground breaking surgery that used cells from his nose, the 40-year-old is walking again.

“When you can’t feel almost half your body, you are helpless, but when it starts coming back it’s like you were born again,” he tells the BBC‘s Panorama programme, which was granted unique access to the treatment and Fidyka’s rehabilitation over a one year period.

The procedure almost reads like something out of a science fiction novel. Surgeons in Poland, collaborating with scientists in London, transplanted olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) collected from Fidyka’s nose into his spinal cord above and below where it had been cut. As the BBC explains, OECs form part of our sense of smell, and “act as pathway cells that enable nerve fibres in the olfactory system to be continually renewed”.


You might also enjoy these stories:

This man played violin while surgeons operated on his brain

She had a mastectomy 30 minutes after giving birth

How pills filled with frozen human poo are saving lives


Strips of nerve tissue from Fidyka’s ankle were also placed across an 8mm gap on the left side of the cord.

According to the scientists, the OECs “acted as a pathway to stimulate the spinal cord cells to regenerate, using the nerve grafts as a bridge to cross the severed cord.” The first signs of success came three months later, when Fidyka noticed one of his thighs was developing muscle. Then, six months after the surgery, the previously unthinkable: he took his first steps with the aid of parallel bars, leg braces and a physiotherapist.

Now Fidyka can walk with a frame, although he tires quickly, and has regained some bladder and bowel sensation and sexual function. This has allowed him resume a relatively independent life – he’s even driving a car again.

This outcome – and what it could mean for the millions of people living with physical disability – is exactly as incredible as it sounds. The leader of the London-based research team, Professor Geoff Raisman, describes the surgery as an achievement as “more impressive than man walking on the moon.”

“It’s amazing to see how regeneration of the spinal cord, something that was thought impossible for many years, is becoming a reality,” Dr Pawel Tabakow, who led the Polish team of surgeons, tells the BBC.

You can read the full report – including video footage – here.