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.
But the lack of oversight from the federal government has not prevented some state governments and individual universities from taking matters into their own hands.
Following the initial investigation into the thefts in 2004, UCLA suspended the program that allowed people to donate their bodies to the school for scientific research. A host of new regulations that includes background checks of employees who handle human remains, redundant oversight across all of the University of California medical schools, and radio transmitters implanted into every cadaver the school receives are soon to take effect.
"I am confident that what we put into place minimizes the likelihood that it will ever happen again," said Dr. Allen Nissenson, associate dean for special projects at UCLA's medical school and the man now in charge of bodies willed to the school.
Ron Wade, who heads the Maryland State Anatomy Board, the only organization in the country that oversees all the cadavers used for research in statewide schools and hospitals, supports federal regulation. However, he says science and citizens are best served when regulation is placed in the hands of the states. Wade says the creation of a national clearinghouse won't address the problem, because states are responsible "to do what they can to assist in the training and study of medical practitioners for the sake of the public good."
He is also wary of UCLA's dependence on technology, like the use of tiny radio transmitters. He would prefer a system that puts qualified and honest people in positions of trust. "From my point of view, if it can go in it can go out -- or be deactivated … Who is there needs to be honest, ethical, credible and there for the right reasons."
Despite their differences, both Olson and Wade were quick to stress the importance of using human remains for medical research.
Though organs donated for transplants are regulated by the federal government under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, no such law applies to research cadavers. The FDA does not regulate this sort of research, Food and Drug Administration spokesperson Heidi Rebellosaid in an email.
While it is illegal for even legitimate businesses to sell body parts outright for profit, it is legal for companies to expect "reasonable reimbursement for expenses," such as procuring, handling, storing and processing human tissue. An entire body, when divided this way, can cost thousands of dollars in processing fees, thus opening the door for illegal sales.
In her book "Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains," author Annie Cheney writes that a brain sold legally to a research hospital sells for around $600 and an elbow can cost as much as $850.
Both men in the UCLA case are being held on $1 million bond. If convicted on all charges, Reid could serve up to five years, eight months and Nelson could serve up to seven years, eight months in state prison.