Experts: Safeguards lacking on cadavers
Despite recent ghoulish cases of illegal sales of human body parts, the nation still lacks a universal oversight system to prevent illicit marketing of cadavers donated to science, experts say.
The situation persists three years after a scandal rocked the University of California, Los Angeles and shed light on the booming body-parts business. Police this week arrested a former school official and a middleman for investigation of illegally trafficking parts of bodies that were willed for research.
"There was some hand-wringing after the UCLA case. But at the end of the day, I don't think we've seen any serious attempt by Congress or state legislatures to wrestle with this issue," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The demand for human body parts has skyrocketed in recent years. Cadavers donated to science are typically used by first-year medical students to hone their surgical skills or by experienced surgeons to practice new techniques to earn continuing education credits. Tissues are also used in various medical procedures.
Each year, thousands of cadavers are supplied to medical schools. Donors often sign a contract giving the school leeway to use the body as it sees fit. Some medical schools share cadavers when there is a surplus. In some states like Maryland, there is a central system that distributes donated bodies among medical schools for research.
It is illegal in the United States to sell body parts for profit, but there is no prohibition on suppliers charging acquisition and handling fees for body parts. Experts estimate a human body can sell for six figures if all parts are used.
Anatomy professor Todd R. Olson of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York said there should be a national clearinghouse run by an independent group to track and distribute donated bodies supplied for research similar to the way organs are allocated for transplantation nationwide.
Olson admits a national clearinghouse overseeing cadavers would not prevent illegal sales of tissues and body parts, but he feels it would be better than the existing hodgepodge of rules.
"This system is so broken that until it's fixed, illegal activity will just continue," Olson said.
Authorities said the UCLA scheme reaped more than $1 million in profits between 1999 and 2004. Prosecutors alleged Henry Reid, the former head of UCLA's willed body program, sold remains to middleman Ernest Nelson, who in turned sold hundreds of body parts to more than 20 private medical private medical, pharmaceutical and hospital research companies. Lawyers for both men have denied wrongdoing.
The scandal prompted the suspension of UCLA's program for a year and forced the University of California system to examine its donation rules. Founded in 1950, the willed body program received about 175 donated bodies a year before it was suspended. It now receives eight to 15 bodies a month since restarting in 2005.
Prior to the UCLA case, the head of the willed body program at UC Irvine was fired after allegations surfaced that he sold spines taken from cadavers to an out-of-state research facility.
Former California Gov. George Deukmejian, who led a task force that looked into the UC system's donated body programs several years ago and made reform recommendations to the Board of Regents, said the new system is stronger.
"Before ... each one of these programs was more or less being operated independently at each campus," Deukmejian said. "We've built far more accountability into the process and much more control."
Among the changes is the creation of a new position that oversees all five willed body programs in the university system. Workers also have to pass criminal and financial background checks and must have security card access in some buildings, said UC spokeswoman Jennifer Ward.
In addition, a pilot program at UCLA in which cadavers are tracked by radio frequency devices will extend to other medical schools in the system, Ward said.
However, some experts say a high-tech fix is not a panacea. The most important thing is to hire ethical people who will not be tempted to sell body parts for profit and to have safeguards in place, said Ronn Wade, who heads the Maryland State Anatomy Board.
"The issue is public trust. If everything is behind closed door with no oversight and control, then it's scary," he said.
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