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Profit Drives Illegal Trade in Body Parts

March 07, 2004|Alan Zarembo and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

The trade in human body parts is a seller's market.

Pharmaceutical companies buy everything from fingernails to tendons to use for research.

Medical instrument firms conduct training seminars for doctors, filling anatomy laboratories -- or hotel event rooms -- with trays of knees or heads that surgeons can use to acquaint themselves with new devices and techniques.

Then there are at least 50 surgical products made from human skin, bones and heart valves that are used in procedures ranging from lip enhancements to fracture repairs.

Bodies also end up as crash-test dummies and are used in other product-safety research.

In all, the human-tissue industry is thought to be worth $500 million a year -- and growing. The trade is supposedly nonprofit, since it is illegal to earn money from the sale of human body parts. But the law allows middlemen to cover their costs by charging "reasonable" fees. Reasonable has become a matter of interpretation. As demand has expanded, so have prices -- and the opportunities for fraud.

The alleged theft of body parts by employees at the UCLA medical school is the latest in a series of local scandals involving cadavers. The willed body program's director, Henry Reid, was arrested Saturday at his home in Anaheim on suspicion of grand theft, but little is known about what transactions occurred.

This much, however, is clear: Reid had easy access to bodies.

There are three main, legitimate sources of bodies and parts.

The first are medical schools. In 1950, UCLA started the world's first willed body program, pioneering the convention of donating one's body to science. There are now 154 such programs nationwide, 10 of them in California.

The vast majority of bodies -- by one report up to 8,000 a year -- are collected this way. The process is straightforward. A donor signs a consent agreement, and upon death, the school arranges to pick up the body. Schools often cover the cost of burial, or more often cremation, when they are finished.

Most cadavers are dissected by first-year medical students. But surplus bodies and parts can be sent to other scientific institutions, including for-profit biomedical corporations. The schools are allowed to charge fees to cover administrative costs, salaries, preservation and storage. Such deals provide an important source of revenue for some anatomy departments.

In principle, all parts that go out must come back -- in order that the ashes from the complete body can eventually be returned to the donor's family.

The second primary legal source of bodies has been more controversial.

Over the last decade, the tissue and organ bank industries have boomed. These institutions are considered nonprofit, and donors envision their parts being used only in altruistic endeavors. But many such banks, closely tied to for-profit companies, essentially sell body parts for commercial research and products.

Only recently, after the Orange County Register produced a series of stories in 2000 detailing the practice, has there been an effort by legislators to force the industry to disclose all the ways a donated body could be used.

The families of donors are not paid.

The final source of bodies is a tiny number of companies that set up their own willed body programs in states that do not restrict such activities to medical schools.

Such firms often work as contractors, setting up surgical training seminars or product tests and providing well-paid experts to prepare the specimens.

Some university anatomists question the recruiting methods of such companies.

"They go in and raid retirement communities with the idea that people are donating their body to science in a humane act," said Arthur Dalley, who heads the anatomy department at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "It's turned around and used for profit."

Like stolen cars that are chopped up and sold in pieces, bodies are worth much less than the sum of their parts.

"The prices have been escalating," said Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "There is more demand."

Vidal Herrera, a former medical technician who runs a forensic services business called 1-800-Autopsy, said: "I get calls all the time from medical researchers, corporations. They want to purchase bodies or they want to purchase tissue."

He said he always refuses such offers.

But as prices have risen, some people who work closely with the dead have been unable to resist the temptation to sell body parts. By some estimates, a single body can be used to make products worth more than $200,000.

At medical schools, the task of procuring bodies, preserving them and keeping records often falls not to professors but to nonacademic technicians who trained as morticians or worked their way up through the ranks.

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