Former employees of the UC San Diego Medical Center Skin Bank illegally diverted bones from cadavers donated to UCSD while operating a competing body tissue bank, according to allegations made in court documents by UC police investigators.
The diversion of bones occurred over a period as long as six months, UC police officials said in recently released affidavits filed in support of search warrants on the offices of the two former university staffers.
In at least one case, the redirection of a body affected the timing of a critical skin graft on a burn patient at the medical center because the needed cadaver with its fresh skin could not immediately be located, the affidavits allege.
A decision on whether to prosecute should be reached by the end of this month, the chief San Diego County deputy district attorney handling the case said Thursday. Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Preckel said that, in his view, the allegations contained in the affidavits filed by university investigators in October and December are accurate. The affidavits allege the unlawful removal of human remains, a felony under state law.
However, a separate check by state health investigators did not find evidence of violations, although state officials stress that their check may not have been as exhaustive as that being undertaken by the district attorney.
A law clerk for attorney James Gattey, who is representing the two major individuals under investigation, said Thursday that the affidavits are hearsay and should not be taken as fact until after charges are filed and proven in court.
The lengthy investigation involves a complex series of events that have focused attention on a little-discussed aspect of medicine in San Diego and elsewhere: the method of procuring organs and tissues for transplant and medical research, and possible competition for such parts. Body parts are generally in short supply and a state law that took effect Wednesday requires medical authorities to approach families or friends of dead patients about the possibility of donating a body, or certain organs, for medical use.
For several years, the UCSD Medical Center has operated a regional donation agency that coordinates donations--skin, bone, eyes, kidneys, among others organs--from all hospitals and referral centers to proper recipients and research facilities.
The UCSD Skin Bank takes skin and bone regularly through a process known as harvesting. Skin and bone can be obtained, stored and distributed more easily than organs, which usually are not accepted from people who die after age 55. UCSD uses most of the skin itself at its regional burn center, but the bones often are made available to other hospitals or teaching centers for a processing fee, the only charge that by state law can be assessed. Eyes and corneas are removed from cadavers at other locations.
During an initial internal investigation last spring, UCSD discovered that the medical center lacked necessary state approvals for harvesting skin and bone. It has corrected the situation, said state health officials, who added that the failure to get state approvals did not appear intentional.
From court documents and interviews with individuals involved with the investigation, the UCSD case revolves around a plan by two workers to set up a private tissue bank to harvest bone in what essentially would be competition with the UC center.
One of the workers, Leroy McIntyre, was the tissue bank coordinator at the UCSD Skin Bank from July, 1976, to May 10, 1985. The second, Michael Sullivan, worked as a skin technician from 1984 to May 10, 1985. McIntyre and Sullivan allegedly decided to form a private tissue bank in January, 1985, while both were still employed at UCSD, according to a statement by UC Police Detective Robert L. Jones.
McIntyre approached Lee Dyer, owner of a private ambulance service that transported cadavers for UCSD and other facilities, as a third partner.
In an interview earlier this week, Dyer said that McIntyre told him the UCSD Skin Bank could not make use of all the bodies being donated to it and therefore a private bank was needed to handle the excess. Dyer said he believed McIntyre had UC approval to harvest such bones privately.
"I thought that harvesting would only be done on the bodies that the university did not want," Dyer said. "And that idea made sense to me, even though the university obviously doesn't want any competition."
If body donations went to private tissue banks as well as to the university, UC might have to pay processing costs to a private bank in order to receive needed skin or other organs.
Dyer said that McIntyre approached him in February with several packages of bones that had come from UCSD Medical Center. Dyer arranged the four transfers of bones to Medical Arts Hospital in Dallas for a payment of $22,300. UC officials suspect the bones were harvested illegally from cadavers donated to UCSD.