‘The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear.’ So says Christ in Matthew 11:5, describing his miracle-making mission on Earth. Sadly, none of those amazing things actually happened back when Christ was skulking the planet. But they do happen today, all of them, thanks not to God or His son but to the most maligned, ridiculed, libelled-against creature of the modern era - Man.
In the twenty-first century, the deaf hear: a gadget called a cochlear implant brings sound and noise and music to even the emptiest of ears. The blind receive their sight, some of them anyway: simple operations like cataracts removal, and vastly more complex inventions like the bionic eye and eye transplantation, have allowed the blind to see. Not only is leprosy now cleansed (thank you, antibiotics) but so are legion other diseases that will have laid to waste whole communities in Biblical times. Indeed, if God tried to inflict a plague on a wicked people now, a few scribbled prescriptions from their local GP would likely hold it at bay and frustrate His vengeful ambitions.
And now, as revealed yesterday, the lame walk. For many years, through our development of prosthetics and technology, man has provided the miracle of movement and moral autonomy to the limbless and injured and others who wouldn’t have had a shot in hell of a good life back in Christ’s day. But what was reported to the world yesterday was different: a man who had been paralysed, who was incapable of moving his legs, moved his legs, and walked.
Yes, it was less dramatic than when Christ is said to have commanded a lame man to ‘Rise, take up thy bed, and walk!’, but it was no less a miracle - only a real rather than imagined one. Darek Fidyka, a 40-year-old Pole, was paralysed after being stabbed repeatedly in the back in 2010. His spinal cord was largely severed. But thanks to scientists in London and surgeons in Poland he can now move his legs and walk with the aid of a frame. The surgeons took cells from his nasal cavity - olfactory ensheathing cells, which enable the sense of smell, and which are among the most self-renewing cells in the human body - and then nurtured and grew them outside of his body before transplanting them into his spinal cord. They had just one drop of material to work with (consisting of around half a million cells) and they injected tiny amounts of it above and below his ruptured cord a hundred times over the course of six months. There was no flash of lightning, no instant magic, no Messiah in a smock demanding ‘Walk!’, and yet after three months Mr Fidyka felt his left thigh gain strength; he saw its muscles flicker; and then he took his first tentative steps, with the help of his therapists. The lame walked.
It’s hard not to be moved by Mr Fidyka’s description of what it is like to feel movement in once-paralysed legs - it’s like being ‘born again’, he said. (Which made me wonder if we might one day make real another miracle attributed to Christ in Matthew 11:5 - ‘the dead are raised up’). Professor Geoff Raisman, the chair of neural regeneration at University College London whose research was central to Mr Fidyka’s treatment, said this breathing of life back into broken, frozen limbs is ‘more impressive than man walking on the moon’. Some might think that is going too far; but it’s certainly possible that Mr Fidyka’s slow, wobbling walk is a case of ‘one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’. If mankind can fix paralysis, we will move into a whole new era of promise and possibility.