Parts cut from donated bodies 'were sold illegally by staff at top US medical school'

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The Independent US

Police are investigating the illegal trade in human body parts at one of America's most prestigious medical schools where officials allegedly made thousands of dollars selling torsos, heads and limbs for use in unregulated experiments.

Police are investigating the illegal trade in human body parts at one of America's most prestigious medical schools where officials allegedly made thousands of dollars selling torsos, heads and limbs for use in unregulated experiments.

The University of California's Centre for Health Sciences in Los Angeles said yesterday that it was doing everything it could to assist police in the inquiry, which focuses on a senior university official and another man.

Both have been arrested over allegations that body parts left to the university by former patients were being sold to outside research institutions.

"These allegations of criminal activity ... are extremely troubling," Albert Carnesale, the university's chancellor, said. "Please know that we are shocked and angered by the despicable behaviour of those involved."

The Willed Body Programme at UCLA is one of the oldest in the US and has received an average of 175 bodies a year since it was established in 1950. It also maintains a "waiting list" of about 11,000 people who want to leave their bodies for medical research and education.

Henry Reid, the programme's director, and another man, Ernest Nelson, are alleged to have had an arrangement in which hundreds of body parts were sold privately for thousands of dollars. Although it is illegal to trade body parts for profit, documents suggest that over six years Mr Reid oversaw the sale of 496 cadavers for $704,600 (£383,000).

Mr Nelson, who with Mr Reid has been released on bail, said he had done nothing wrong and that the university knew what he was doing. He said that twice a week he was granted access to the university's freezers where he was allowed to saw off human knees, hands, torsos, heads and other body parts.

Mr Nelson then sold the body parts to medical institutions and multinational companies, among them the US giant Johnson & Johnson. No one from the company was available for comment yesterday.

Relatives of people who left their bodies to UCLA have launched a lawsuit demanding that the programme be shut until safeguards are in place. Among those who gifted their bodies was Sidney Liroff, who died in 2001 after suffering a series of strokes. His wife, Selma, made a pact with her husband to donate her body. Speaking from her home in Van Nuys, California, Mrs Liroff said: "We did it because we wanted to do something good. My husband's life had been extended by science and he wanted to give something back.

"We had decided long ago to carry donor cards. Now I am having nightmares - the horrible images in my head. It's so awful. At first I was just sad but now I am angry. Someone should go to jail."

The UCLA investigation has focused attention on the little-discussed but widely practised trade in body parts in the US. Because making a profit from the sale of the limbs and organs is illegal, companies earn money by charging for the collection, transport and preservation of the cadavers.

As a result there is an entire economy involving undertakers, research companies, hospices and body banks in which whole bodies or parts of them are traded. Undertakers will often offer to provide a free funeral in exchange for the right to use certain parts of the body for research. Some freight companies specialise in the shipment by air of human limbs.

The largely unregulated trade is driven by medical research institutions that want the body parts for a variety of uses such as the practice of new surgical techniques.

The website of the New Jersey-based company Innovations in Medical Training and Education, for instance, advertises a three-day course in Seattle for doctors to practise keyhole surgery using "unembalmed cadavers". The course also uses the bodies of pigs to simulate human bodies.

Augie Perna, the company's founder, said: "There is a huge need to be able to get specimens that people donate for this type of education." Dr Todd Olson, the chairman of the Anatomical Committee of the Associated Medical Schools of New York, estimated that about 10,000 cadavers are used each year by teaching establishments alone.

But body parts are not just used for research. A recent article in Harpers magazine revealed that another New Jersey company, LifeCell, used skin from bodies to produce tissue that doctors can use for skin grafts, cosmetic surgery and even penis enlargements. A Florida company grinds up human bones to make a paste for periodontal surgery.

The magazine listed prices: a complete torso for between $1,000-$1,400, a head $550, a brain $500, a shoulder $431, a foot $350 and a finger nail $15. A leg costs $815.

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