Investigation Into Sale of Willed Body Parts From California Medical School Expands
Henry Reid, director of the willed body program at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine, charged Ernest Nelson $704,600 between 1998 and 2003 for the sale of 496 cadavers donated to the program for medical research, according to invoices printed on UCLA letterhead, the Los Angles Times reports. Nelson allegedly sold the body parts to a number of large medical research companies. According to the Times, the invoices provide the first evidence of the "scope of a burgeoning scandal over the alleged illegal sale of body parts at the university" (Ornstein/Marosi, Los Angeles Times, 3/9). According to Louis Marlin, an attorney for UCLA, university officials first became aware of a potential problem when the Department of Health Services told them that Nelson had sold body parts under the false pretense that the university had only tested the cadavers for infectious diseases. After Dr. J. Thomas Rosenthal, associate vice chancellor of the medical school, confronted Reid on the issue, Reid said that he had sold a small number of body parts to Nelson and that he had arranged for their return, which he said prompted UCLA to end the investigation. However, Marlin said that UCLA began an investigation when an attorney for Nelson filed a claim against the university for $241,000, the value of the body parts he had in his warehouse after the university asked him to return any parts in his possession. Reid on Feb. 26 admitted to Marlin that he received payment from Nelson for the body parts, at which time Marlin said he contacted the police and placed Reid on administrative leave (California Healthline, 3/8). The sale of cadavers or body parts for profit is illegal (Madigan, New York Times, 3/9). Over the weekend, police arrested Reid for grand theft and Nelson for receipt of stolen property (Edds, Washington Post, 3/9). UCLA also placed a third employee who allegedly participated in the operation on leave (Jordan, Wall Street Journal, 3/9). UCLA officials said that that they have "no idea of the volume of the alleged transactions nor the amount of money involved," the Times reports. In addition, Marlin "adamantly denies" that UCLA officials other than Reid were aware of the operation, the Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 3/9). Rosenthal also said that "there is no evidence that the parts were used for anything other than medical education and research," the Post reports (Washington Post, 3/9). Johnson & Johnson is one of the companies to which Nelson sold body parts from UCLA, according a letter sent to the university by attorneys for Nelson.
UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale said in a statement, "The allegations of criminal activity involving the willed body program are extremely troubling," adding, "Please know that we are shocked and angered by the despicable behavior of those involved" (New York Times, 3/9). At a news conference on Monday, Dr. Gerald Levey, vice chancellor of UCLA Medical Sciences, apologized to cadaver donors and their families. "These alleged crimes violate the trust of the donors, their families and UCLA. We are deeply sorry," he said (Los Angeles Times, 3/9). Rosenthal said at the news conference, "We truly thought we had adequate policies and procedures that included strong administrative and audit oversight." However, Rosenthal said the UCLA willed body program remains in "fairly good shape" and will continue because the cadavers are required for research and to instruct medical students. He also said that UCLA has hired former California Gov. George Deukmejian (R) to conduct an independent audit of the program (Washington Post, 3/9).
Attorneys on Monday filed suit in Superior Court on Monday on behalf of the families of individuals who donated their cadavers to the UCLA willed body program since 1997, when Reid began to lead the program. They plan to seek class-action status for the case and an unspecified amount of damages (Los Angeles Times, 3/9). The lawsuit alleges that UCLA officials "allowed the illegal traffic of body parts to go on, despite promises to clean up the program after revelations came to light in 1993 that remains were not disposed of as promised," the AP/Las Vegas Sun reports. According to the lawsuit, UCLA told the families of donors that after research was conducted on the cadavers, the university would cremate and dispose of them "in a dignified manner" (Nguyen, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 3/9). Raymond Boucher, an attorney for the families said, "The families we represent are devastated over the gruesome facts that have come to light in the last few days." He said that he will ask a Superior Court commissioner on Tuesday to close the program until UCLA addresses the issues (Los Angeles Times, 3/9).
Several broadcast programs reported on the sale of body parts from the UCLA willed body program:
- CNN's "Live From": The segment includes comments from Vidal Herrera, former director of the program (Marquez, "Live From," CNN, 3/8). The complete transcript is available online.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": NPR's Melissa Block interviews Carrie Kahn, the Los Angeles Times reporter who first reported the story (Block, "All Things Considered," NPR, 3/8). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from Dr. Arthur Caplan, chair of the department of bioethics and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania; Raymond Boucher, an attorney for the families who received documents from UCLA; Dr. Arthur Dalley, director of medical gross anatomy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine; and Levey (Kahn, "Morning Edition," NPR, 3/9). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- MPR's "Marketplace": The segment includes comments from Caplan and Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Palmer, "Marketplace," MPR, 3/8). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.