The Body Snatchers

ByABC News
March 9, 2007, 6:08 PM

March 12, 2007 — -- Make no bones about it, the illicit trade in human body parts is big business and no one particularly the federal government seems to be doing much about it.

Two men were arrested this past week for stealing cadavers from the UCLA medical school and selling them for parts three years after the case was first uncovered. Still, experts say little is being done on a broader scale to stop what appears to be a growing and lucrative, if not grisly, trade.

Henry Reid, 57, who directed the willed body program at UCLA, was accused March 7 of selling $43,000 worth of human remains to Ernest Nelson, 49, from May 1999 to February 2004. In its complaint, The Los Angeles County District Attorney accused Nelson, who operated the Empire Anatomical Co., of making more than $1 million by selling the parts to more than 20 private, medical, pharmaceutical and hospital research companies including Johnson & Johnson.

It is difficult to regulate the sale of human remains because the buyers are often large corporations, like Johnson & Johnson, that use cadavers to train physicians in new techniques with equipment they've developed, according to Todd Olson, a professor of anatomy at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

"I don't realistically see that we can ask the federal government to regulate this [or] that it will do anything but create loopholes and profiteers and solidify the role of corporate profit makers working in the shades and shadows of the current system," Olson said.

Olson suggests that change must begin with the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education. ACCME is the body that pairs surgeons with health companies for training in newly developed technologies. Fixing ACCME, he says, would be an "overnight solution that would address two-thirds to three-quarters of the problem." The organization needs only to demand that body parts used in its courses and provided by corporations are properly obtained and tracked.

Though Olson is pessimistic that government can play an effective role in regulating the trade of body parts, he does believe that a national clearinghouse that could distribute "surplus material to institutions in need" could cut down on some abuses.