UCLA Medical School Temporarily Suspends Willed Body Program
The University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine on Tuesday announced plans to temporarily suspend the UCLA willed body program "at least until completion of an investigation into accusations of trafficking in body parts," the New York Times reports. UCLA made the announcement after a Superior Court hearing for a lawsuit filed on behalf of the families of individuals who donated their cadavers to the program (Broder, New York Times, 3/10). According to invoices printed on UCLA letterhead, Henry Reid, director of the willed body program, charged Earnest Nelson $704,600 between 1998 and 2003 for the sale of 496 cadavers donated to the program for medical research. Nelson allegedly sold the body parts to a number of large medical research companies. According to Louis Marlin, an attorney for UCLA, university officials first became aware of a potential problem with the willed body program when the California 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 prompted UCLA to end the investigation. However, Marlin said that UCLA began a new 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. Over the weekend, police arrested Reid for grand theft and Nelson for receipt of stolen property (California Healthline, 3/9).
Marlin said that the decision to temporarily suspend the UCLA willed body program, a move incorporated into a restraining order issued in Superior Court on Tuesday, was "needed to reassure anyone whose family members had willed their body to the university or anyone planning to," the AP/Las Vegas Sun reports. UCLA medical school students in the gross anatomy laboratory will continue to use 25 to 30 cadavers from the willed body program, but the university will place the remainder of the cadavers in cold storage until Superior Court Commissioner Bruce Mitchell allows the program to resume. Marlin said, "Whether or not UCLA will restart the program is a decision that has not been made at this time and will not be made for some period of time. It is being examined" (Stockstill, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 3/10).
Raymond Boucher, an attorney for the families of donors to the UCLA willed body program, said of university officials, "Not only have they dropped the ball, but they stuck their head in the ground," adding, "There's just no way this could happen if they were diligent in pursuing this" (Ornstein et al., Los Angeles Times, 3/10). Marlin said, "UCLA has been the secondary victim of a crime," adding, "The primary victims are the families of the donors. They are our first concern" (New York Times, 3/10). Marlin also said that although the UCLA case involves "nefarious activities by two rogue employees," university officials must "take stock of their procedures and evaluate whether or not more stringent procedures could help prevent this type of activity." UCLA Regent Joanne Kozberg said, "We are part of the chain of responsibility," adding, "We have to do whatever we can to safeguard the integrity of these programs." However, UCLA Regent Ward Connerly said, "No matter what type of system you have in place, if somebody is going to cheat ... there's no way you can devise a system that would prevent them from doing it." UC spokesperson Lavonne Luquis said that university Auditor Patrick Reed has requested audits of the willed body programs at the five UC medical schools to ensure that the "programs are operating smoothly and have adequate controls and safeguards," the Los Angeles Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 3/10). Rosenthal on Monday also said that UCLA has hired former California Gov. George Deukmejian (R) to conduct an independent audit of the university willed body program (California Healthline, 3/9).
Karl Ross, the acting chief of the UCLA Police Department, which has conducted the criminal investigation in the UCLA case, said Reid and Nelson may face additional charges. Greg Hafif, an attorney for Nelson, said that UCLA officials were "fully aware of the transactions for which his client was billed $1,400 a body, for a total of more than $700,000" and that Nelson believed Reid "was authorized to sell him bodies," the New York Times reports (New York Times, 3/10). Marlin has denied that UCLA officials other than Reid were aware of the operation (American Health Line, 3/9).
Officials for Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday admitted that Mitek, a J&J subsidiary, purchased body parts from Nelson. Massachusetts-based Mitek manufactures devices that treat soft-tissue injuries, according to J&J spokesperson Marc Monseau. Monseau did not provide details on the amount of body parts purchased or price that Mitek paid. In a statement, Monseau said, "Mitek did not knowingly receive samples that may have been obtained in an inappropriate way" (New York Times, 3/10).
Several broadcast programs reported on the UCLA case:
- NBC's "Nightly News": The segment includes comments from Boucher, Levey and Marlin (Mullen, "Nightly News," NBC, 3/9). A video excerpt of the segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NBC's "Today": The segment includes comments from Boucher; Vidal Herrera, former director of the UCLA willed body program; Levey; Marlin; and Shirley Williams, a client of Boucher (Mullen, "Today," NBC, 3/9). The complete segment is available online in Windows Media.
- NPR's "Day to Day": The program includes an interview with Harpers magazine writer Annie Cheney about donated cadaver sales (Brand, "Day to Day," NPR, 3/9). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Talk of the Nation": The program will include a discussion of the sales, trade and medical uses of donated cadavers (Conan, "Talk of the Nation," NPR, 3/10). The complete segment will be available online in RealPlayer after 6 p.m. ET.