Harvesting Cadavers for Medical Research

The accusations against Michael Mastromarino and Biomedical Tissue Services -- charged with illegally taking body parts from funeral homes and selling the tissue for big profits -- are frightening.

The case begs the question: Could illegal tissue harvesting be going on elsewhere?

"I liken this to the tip of the iceberg," said Todd Olson, who teaches anatomy at Albert Einstein Medical School and heads up its anatomical donations program. "The issues now that we are seeing with biomedical tissue services and the tissue industry is but another reflection of the fact that your body is now worth more dead than for most people it is alive."

There is another piece of the body parts trade that has even less regulation than tissue transplant: medical seminars, a vital part of a doctor's continuing education. Without these seminars, surgeons would be trying out new techniques on live patients.

Harvesting Cadavers for Medical Seminars

But many say there isn't enough oversight in that field -- it's a world where a box of human elbows can be shipped by express mail.

And it's a business that seems to require little overhead or qualifications, said author Annie Cheney.

"All you need, really, uh, is a couple of meat freezers, and some saws, and a warehouse," said Cheney.

It's not hard to find other instances of bodies being illegally harvested for tissue. In Riverside, Calif., a crematorium owner had allegedly been taking his customers' bodies without consent, cutting them up and selling them -- not for transplant, but to shady body brokers for medical research.

Prosecutor Victoria Hightower was there when the police raided the Pacific Crematorium. "It was ... it's unspeakable, really. I mean to see something like that. To see severed heads wrapped in Saran Wrap and in refrigerators," she said.

Dissecting in the Ballroom

But even when medical seminars are being supplied by responsible companies who gain consent of next of kin, concerns have been raised about the locations of some of the seminars. Many of the seminars take place in some of the most well-known hotels in the country.

Registered nurse Marion Ulloa observed the conditions inside a seminar in Florida, where four dead bodies were being used as teaching tools for doctors, in the public ballroom of a popular hotel.

"I don't know what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting to see the whole entire cadaver laying there as if it were in a morgue. Pull out a slab, just like that," Ulloa said.

And she said infection control seemed a bit primitive.

"We had gloves, but we didn't have a sink in the room, we didn't have soap in the room or hand cleansers and that would have made me feel more comfortable," Ulloa said.

In fact, Ulloa says one of the bodies was leaking onto the plastic underneath its gurney.

"There was a puddle on the floor next to it and ... it was dripping from the hand of the person," she said. "I don't know, that kind of didn't give me a good feeling. I just wish they were done in the proper venue -- possibly in a morgue, or an autopsy table."

Olson said that dissecting cadavers in a public hotel ballroom shouldn't be happening. There could be a risk, he said, of transmitting blood-borne pathogens.

"Hepatitis, AIDS, that have a long, uh, life span after death. I mean long, we're talking days not necessarily years," he said. "These things should not be occurring in public settings."

While the risk of spreading disease may be small, Olson says holding seminars in these settings is an unnecessary risk. There are safer, more appropriate settings for these seminars, he said, and doctors would still seek them out to get hands-on training.

If there is a common theme in the transplant and nontransplant side of the body part business, many say it is the need for new regulation and for more caution.