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Call it dark side of the corpse

May 5, 2006 |

The ongoing probe into alleged stealing of body parts has torn the veil off a well-kept secret in the human-tissue industry.

A corpse is a valuable commodity, and its parts can be worth more than the whole.

For example, knees, to be used for medical research and education, can cost $650 each. A whole torso for the same purpose costs $3,000.

And a whole cadaver can cost as much as $5,000.

Body parts used in surgery to replace diseased or injured parts in patients are even more valuable. A femur, or leg bone, used in cancer surgery goes for $5,000.

Because body parts are so lucrative and because the demand exceeds the supply the field is ripe for deception and theft.

That's allegedly how a Philadelphia funeral home became ensnared in the scandal roiling an industry that serves the noblest of missions and attracts the lowest of opportunists.

District attorneys in Brooklyn and in Philadelphia are investigating a ring in which funeral homes illegally sold to Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, N.J., parts of bodies and entire bodies destined for cremation or for private burial. These bodies were not screened for disease, and were taken without permission of next of kin, as regulations require.

Two Biomedical workers say that they were paid $300 or more for each corpse they dismembered at the Louis Garzone Funeral Home, on Somerset Street near Ruth, in Kensington.

Biomedical paid funeral homes between $500 and $1,000 for each body, and more than 1,000 bodies were involved, according to the Brooklyn D.A.

Biomedical, which allegedly netted $4.6 million over three years, sold these body parts to legitimate tissue banks that converted the material into bone paste, tissue used in surgical patients, and dental materials used for implants.

And loved ones never found out. The rest of the bodies apparently were cremated.

"You send a body for cremation and they harvest a couple knees and wrists and tendons, heart valves, tissue and you don't know," said Dr. Todd R. Olson, an anatomy professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

"There is no biochemical way to establish even that the ashes you receive are human, let alone whose. You can't do DNA testing. You paid them to take the body. Then, they take the bones and sell it."

As shocking as the allegations are, they aren't unique. A few rogue funeral homes have been accused before, according to Annie Cheney, author of "Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains."

"Competition for bodies has led tissue companies to collaborate with funeral directors and brokers from the underground trade," she writes. "Together they are funneling bodies" into the tissue-industry pipeline.

Tissue can't be bought, sold

The illicit activity is outside the well-regulated practice of organ transplants, which still takes place relatively rarely and always in a well-scrutinized hospital setting when the donor is declared brain-dead.

And it is also beyond legitimate tissue transplant. Legitimate transplants of bone, skin, heart, valves and tendons is a billion-dollar business growing by 10 to 15 percent each year. Under the most stringent conditions, tissue can be harvested up to 24 hours after the heart stops.

It is illegal to buy and sell tissue, but tissue banks may charge "reasonable processing fees." This term has never been defined, and body brokers or for-profit tissue banks can set their own fees for body parts. These parts are sold to processors who make graft material to be used as bone, skin or tendons in surgeries. Other parts are sold for use in medical training and research.

There is suspicion within the tissue industry that "if more people knew that some processors are for-profit businesses, they would refuse to let for-profits process their donations, or refuse to donate tissue altogether," writes Indiana University law professor Robert A. Katz.

"Families want to do good," said Howard M. Nathan, president and chief executive of Gift of Life, the organ-and-tissue-donor program for this region.

Gift of Life sends its donated tissue to two nonprofit tissue processors. Gift of Life received about 48,000 referrals from hospitals last year. Of those, only about 1,400 qualified to be tissue donors and only 382 were organ donors.

The tissue-screening process is rigorous. Although tissue does not need to be genetically matched for transplant as a kidney must be compatible, for instance donors are screened to rule out old age or certain diseases.

"Tissues are used to repair a knee or a back. That is really an elective procedure. It is not life-saving," said Nathan. "That's why it has very tight screening criteria. If a donor died with a sexually transmitted disease or cancer, or engaged in a high-risk behavior, they are rejected."

Some donated bodies are used by medical and dental schools that need cadavers to teach students about human anatomy. Usually, these come from elderly people who will their bodies to science or to a specific medical school.

Humanity Gifts Registry in Center City supervises the geographic distribution of these donated bodies among Pennsylvania's schools. Last year, 634 adult bodies were donated statewide with one-third coming to this region. The deceased's family bears all but $50 of the cost to transport the body to the designated medical school, and the nonembalmed body must be transported within hours of death.

In this region, the five medical schools' demand for bodies always exceeds the supply. However, the registry never looks to replenish its supply outside of its direct donor pool.

"We stay away from body brokers," said executive director Bruce Hirsch. "Some of them appear to be shady. There have been too many stories about unclear trail of possession."

Safeguarding from scandal

In the Biomedical investigation, authorities allege that its owner, Michael Mastromarino, had forgeries made of family consent forms for donation, and of the decedents' age and cause of death.

The Biomedical scandal began when bodies were illegally dismembered in nonsterile funeral homes and sold to tissue processors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration shut down Biomedical and alerted hospitals that bought graft tissue from these processors. That FDA notice, in turn, has spawned thousands of lawsuits from patients worried their implanted material is tainted.

Recently, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control said his investigation confirmed that some of the recipients had tested positive for HIV, hepatitis and syphilis, though he couldn't say how many and it may never be possible to know if they contracted the disease from the tissue.

Mastromarino has not responded to several calls for comment from the Daily News.

But two federal lawmakers have introduced legislation in the House and Senate to stop illegal trafficking in diseased body parts, creating new safeguards and oversight for the industry.

In the end, however, hospitals can be the most important watchdogs, said Gift of Life's Nathan.

"The reality is hospitals can buy tissue from any tissue bank that exists in the United States," said Nathan. "It is up to them to make sure that the tissue has been recovered and processed safely."

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