UCLA Officials Warned in Advance About Cadaver Sale Concerns
California Department of Health Services inspectors in February 2003 warned about a "possible misuse of donated cadavers" from the University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine willed body program, but university officials waited for more than one year before they investigated the allegations, according to documents released on Monday by the department, the Los Angeles Times reports (Ornstein/Morin, Los Angeles Times, 3/16). 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. Last weekend, police arrested Reid for grand theft and Nelson for receipt of stolen property. UCLA last Tuesday announced plans to suspend the willed body program at least until the completion of the investigation (California Healthline, 3/11). Department inspectors began to investigate Nelson when they received "tips that he was fraudulently claiming that corpses had been screened for infectious diseases" and that he stored cadavers from willed body program in his garage, the Times reports. Tom Tempske, a department laboratory examiner, on Feb. 20, 2003, sent the UC system a fax that said, "Based on information that has been gathered in this inquiry, it appears that this individual may be misrepresenting an association with the University of California." Tempske asked UC officials for help to determine whether Nelson "now or ever has obtained cadaveric tissue from any of the UC willed body programs." In addition, department inspectors met with UC officials a few weeks later to discuss the issue (Ornstein/Morin, Los Angeles Times, 3/16).
According to Louis Marlin, an attorney for UCLA, Dr. J. Thomas Rosenthal, associate vice chancellor of the medical school, confronted Reid on the allegations raised by the department. 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 (California Healthline, 3/11). At the time, UCLA officials told department inspectors that "they believed that the problem would not recur, because they had stopped sending body parts outside the university," the Times reports. Lavonne Luguis, a spokesperson for UCLA, said on Monday, "The basic problem is that we essentially had a double agent working against us. ... They had no reason to disbelieve" Reid at the time. She added, "This at the time did not seem to merit anything beyond the attention it received." Luguis said that UC regents would meet to discuss the issue on Thursday (Ornstein/Morin, Los Angeles Times, 3/16).
In related news, police documents released on Monday indicate that Nelson sold body parts from the UCLA willed body program at a price more than three times higher than the price that the university had charged, the Los Angeles Times reports. UCLA ended shipment of cadavers and body parts to outside entities in early 2003, but according to a price list used since Aug. 1, 1997, the university charged $1,000 for an unembalmed cadaver; $550 for a torso and a head; $500 for a torso; $400 for a brain; and $275 for a pelvis. However, in a letter, Reid promised to pay Nelson $241,000 -- the "total market value" -- for hundreds of body parts that he had to return to UCLA in early 2003, according to an attorney for Nelson. A list in the letter cited prices of $680 for a neck and head; $1,000 for a spine and $175 for a foot and ankle (Ornstein et al., Los Angeles Times, 3/16). The letter also cited the price of a torso at $2,100. Reid said that he made a spreadsheet that listed the body parts sold to Nelson but added that he created no invoices for the sales.
Keith Valentine, executive vice president of NuVasive, a company that manufacturers spinal devices, said on Monday that the company had submitted all records of transactions with Nelson to UCLA officials. Valentine added that the company considers the records accurate (Ornstein/Morin, Los Angeles Times, 3/16). Kevin O'Boyle, chief financial officer of NuVasive, said on Wednesday said that UCLA had asked for information "some time ago" about potential forged documents that had accompanied UCLA cadavers obtained through Nelson. At that time, O'Boyle said that NuVasive officials ended their relationship with Nelson (California Healthline, 3/11). According to state health services department documents, NuVasive paid Nelson at least $115,000 between January 2001 and December 2002 for "fresh cadaver torso specimens" that cost $2,100 each. Invoices provided by NuVasive also indicate that Nelson lied to Tempske when he said that he had not sold body parts for the "last couple of years" (Ornstein/Morin, Los Angeles Times, 3/16).
Willed body programs nationwide recently have faced criticism because of the UCLA case, but "the scandals should serve as powerful reminders of the amazing contributions we can make after we die," rather than "putting us off the notion of donating our bodies to science," reporter Tara Parker-Pope writes in a Wall Street Journal "Health Journal" column. According to Parker-Pope, "what has been lost in the headlines" about the UCLA case is that "all of the bodies were nonetheless used for legitimate medical research" (Parker-Pope, Wall Street Journal, 3/16).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.