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11 Nissan 5765 - April 20, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Observations: The Cadaver Business in the US — Why Not to Leave one's Body to Science
By M Plaut

The Torah teaches us that even after the soul leaves, it is not through with its body and what happens to its Earthly remains is of ongoing concern to the departed soul even in its new abode. Because of this it is vital to ensure that all of the remains are buried together, and as soon as possible. This is one of the major chessed functions of Zaka: to gather up absolutely all of the remains of those murdered by terrorists in order to bring them to kever Yisroel. This is very important to the departed soul.

Not everyone sees things this way. About 10,000 Americans leave their bodies to science each year following their misguided impulses to do something good, and expecting that their remains will advance knowledge and help cure disease. There is, however, no supervision of what academic do with the bodies that are willed to them, and the reality is often far from what they expected when they made the donations. Many donated bodies serve no higher purpose than to bring high profits to dealers.

Readers are advised that some of the descriptions of the abuse in the article are moderately explicit. Many things were left out, but it was felt that it is important to bring some of the somewhat gory details in order to provide information to discourage those who may consider willing their remains to science.

Few of those who donate their bodies to "science" expect their remains will be mangled in automobile crash tests, blown to bits by land mines or cut up with power saws to be shipped in pieces around the world, but that is what happens in many cases. Others end up in pieces, arrayed in the ballroom of a resort hotel for a surgical training seminar. Corpses today are valuable raw material in a little-known profit-making industry, and they are often worth far more cut up than whole.

Each year, about 20,000 bodies are donated and about 1 million transplants involving human tissue are performed, according to Bob Rigney, chief executive of the American Association of Tissue Banks, which has 83 member banks. He told MSNBC that in his estimate that both donations and demand are increasing by 5 percent to 10 percent annually.

The human-tissue industry is thought to be worth $500 million a year or more, and it is growing. Tendons and ligaments are used to treat sports injuries, long bones replace those eaten away by cancer, shaped bone products are used for spinal surgery, and ground bone is used in dental surgery. Cadavers supply corneas and heart valves; help medical students learn anatomy; give surgeons practice in cutting, stitching and other operating techniques; and have even served as crash- test dummies. Cadaver collagen finds its way into people's lips.

If a single body could provide all its organs, the cadaver would be worth $150,000-200,000, according to experts in the field.

A scandal at the cadaver laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, has thrown a spotlight on this business that is usually hidden from public view. The university suspended its Willed Body Program and university police arrested the program's director and a man the university accuses of trafficking in as many as 800 cadavers in a six-year body-parts-for-profit scheme.

The program is said to receive 175 donated bodies a year. The Los Angeles Times reported that it was shown invoices on a UCLA letterhead indicating 496 cadavers were sold for a total of $704,600 between 1998 and 2003.

The accused middleman admits the basic facts but said the university had been fully aware of what he was doing. He transferred the human parts, for sizable fees, to as many as 100 research institutions and private companies, including major US companies.

There is little talk in the medical community about the use of donated bodies in teaching and research. Many prefer not to ask where the body parts they use come from. The parts are in fact supplied by a network of brokers who make handsome profits for processing and transporting human remains. Selling body parts is illegal, but there is nothing against charging for shipping and handling. There is also no prohibition on buying or selling body parts for research or medical education. The things that are permitted allow ample room for some to earn rich profits.

Research doctors say the demand for bodies and parts far outstrips the supply, raising prices and encouraging a growing number of body-parts entrepreneurs. Some of these promote their "facilitator" services on Web sites misleadingly emphasizing the great benefit to humanity a willed body provides.

A human body, particularly one in pieces, is of considerable profit to a broker. Delivery of an intact cadaver costs as little as $1,000, but specialists seek out specific pieces of anatomy for their work and individual parts can be expensive. A head can cost $500 in "processing fees," according to brokers who handle such parts. A torso in good condition can fetch $5,000. A spine goes for as much as $3,500, a knee $650, a cornea $400. In 2002, a pharmaceutical company paid $4,000 for a box of fingernails and toenails.

Dr. Stuart J. Youngner, chairman of the department of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland told the New York Times, "It's icky. It's upsetting. The people who handle these things have been able to get away with stuff because nobody really wants to get into it."

Dr. Youngner added that the interests of medicine and the people who handle the dead, legally or not, have intersected for hundreds of years and have led to recurring scandals. He cited the case of William Burke and William Hare, two Scotsmen of the 19th century whose trade in corpses was so profitable that they began to murder to get more merchandise.

Five years ago in 1999, the director of the Willed Body Program at the University of California, Irvine, was fired for selling six spines to a Phoenix hospital for $5,000. An investigation discovered that hundreds of bodies were unaccounted for.

The director of the cadaver laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston was fired in 2002 for selling body parts to a pharmaceutical company and other entities.

In 2003, Michael Francis Brown, the owner of a crematory in Riverside County, Calif., was convicted of embezzlement and mutilation of corpses. He received 20 years in prison for illegally removing and selling parts from bodies he was supposed to cremate. Prosecutors say he made more than $400,000 from the sales.

Doctors and medical device manufacturers say the use of human remains is indispensable to advancing medical science. There is no substitute, they say, for unembalmed flesh in teaching surgery.

But critics point to the black market in body parts and the cavalier way many donated bodies are handled, noting that the surreptitious nature of much of the business makes it impossible to know how many — and which — donated bodies end up bringing some sort of benefit to mankind, and which just serve to line the pockets of some unscrupulous individual.

A lot of money changes hands and there is virtually no regulation of the interstate traffic in body parts. "It is easier to bring a crate of heads into California than a crate of apples," said one expert.

Even if the majority of university-based cadaver programs are properly run and serve a function in medical education, but those seeking body parts for profit constantly approach others involved in handling corpses, including funeral directors and morgue workers, and many succumb to temptation.

Many aspects of this trade were described in an article by Annie Cheney in Harper's Magazine.

One of the largest suppliers of bodies and body parts for medical experimentation is the Medical Education and Research Institute in Memphis. The institute conducted 478 seminars last year; 90 percent of them used fresh cadaver specimens.

Janice Hepler, the institute's executive director, said each part of a cut-up cadaver was tagged with a number so that the remains could be reassembled for cremation when research was complete. Staff members accompany body parts to seminars around the country. The body parts are returned to Memphis, where they are cremated together.

The institute collects the bodies of 200 donors a year. It charges medical societies $6,000 to $35,000 for training seminars, and the societies pass the costs on to the doctors who attend them. The society conducts 14 such cadaver courses a year and requires 90 specimens.

The Memphis operation and several like it, including a Philadelphia company and a cadaver transport company on Staten Island, are the above ground sector of the industry.

But there is a thriving underground market as well, similar to the grave robbers who supplied cadavers to doctors and researchers in past times.

Last November Federal Express employees at a depot near St. Louis noticed a package leaking what looked like blood. Inside were a human arm and two legs packed in dry ice. The parts were addressed to a freelance body broker who operated from his home in suburban Kirkwood, Mo.

"Everybody knows who to call — the buyers, the sellers, the disarticulators, the schools, the crematoriums. It's a lucrative business."

One veteran described the business as a world of thugs, hacksaws and back-alley body pickups. In the black market, there are generally three places where tissue, organs and bone can be illegally procured: university programs, hospitals and county morgues that perform autopsies, and crematories and funeral homes.

Middlemen play on the worst impulses of technicians who are underpaid, undereducated and often underappreciated. The demand is greater than the supply, and the researchers and the doctors at the other end of things don't want to know.

A great many ways have been found to supply the growing demand for body parts. With the cost of burial exploding, the next of kin are sometimes responsive to the pitch of signing over loved ones' remains for "medical study."

Many times, a man with a van is dispatched in darkness to a crematory to pick up boxes of arms and legs and heads. Days or weeks later, one said, "someone is handed an urn of ashes. Who's going to know?"

Relatives of some of those who have donated bodies have been surprised to learn what happened after death. In a class- action lawsuit dating back to 1996, dozens of families are suing U.C.L.A. over how the university handled remains.

One man, who died two years ago, willed his body to U.C.L.A. as a "gift to science." His widow, 81, said that she had planned to follow him, even though they are both Jewish and knew that the Jewish tradition is to bury intact, within 24 hours of death.

"We just wanted quietly to do a good thing," she said.

But having learned of the scandal at U.C.L.A., she said, she has no idea what happened to her husband, and she is devastated. "It's ghoulish," she said.

She said she had been promised that her husband would be returned to her after research was completed. But when she called the university she was told by a technician that her wishes could not be accommodated.

Donated Bodies Used in Land Mine Tests

Tulane University has suspended its dealings with a distributor of donated bodies after finding out that seven cadavers had been sold to the Army and blown up in Texas to test protective footwear against land mines.

The bodies, which were donated to Tulane's medical school, were given to a Staten Island company because the university had more than it needed. The company sold them to the Army more than a year ago for $25,000 to $30,000, said a spokesman for the Army's Medical Research and Material Command in Fort Detrick, Md.

In early 2003, when Tulane found out about the tests, it asked the company to never again allow its cadavers to be used for anything but medical and educational purposes.

This month, the university suspended its contract with the service after published reports about the incident.

A major player in the obscure business of supplying cadavers for research, National Anatomical Service, is based in a funeral home on a quiet side street on Staten Island. Its chief executive, John Vincent Scalia, who is also the funeral director for the John Vincent Scalia Home for Funerals, called it "probably the biggest cadaver transporting company in the country."

Mr. Scalia gave a recent example of how his business works: A medical institution in New York City needed three cadavers. Mr. Scalia found some at a research institution in South Carolina and flew his cadaver driver — a retired police officer — and an assistant down to South Carolina. They rented a van, packed up the cadavers and delivered them to New York. When the customer in New York was done using the cadavers, the company cremated them and shipped the ashes back to South Carolina. For these services, Mr. Scalia said, he charged $1,960 a cadaver.

An article in the current Harper's magazine says the company bought seven bodies from Tulane University for $7,000 and sold them for about $30,000 to the Army, which blew them up to test land-mine safety equipment. Mr. Scalia told the New York Times that the dollar figures in the Harper's article were "completely wrong," but he would not say what the correct amounts were.

He also said he did not sell human bodies, a practice that is illegal, but received fees only for locating and transporting them. National Anatomical Service ships about 400 cadavers a year.


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