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Patients given stolen body parts

Jun 21, 2006

Medical products made in the United States from stolen dead body parts have been brought to Australia and implanted into dozens of people.

Australia's medical watchdog, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) was last night trying urgently to contact 46 patients through their doctors to warn them of the developments.

The move came after evidence was presented to the watchdog that the material made from stolen human body parts had arrived in Australia.

The agency's own inquiries had previously failed to uncover the truth about the importation.

Among the people whose body tissue was illegally taken from funeral homes in the US was legendary BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke, who died in 2004.

The bone, ligament and skin material much of it aged and, due to the potential for infection, unsuitable for transplant was traded to legitimate firms, which transformed it into products used to treat back pain, incontinence and other conditions.

The material implanted in Australian patients was brought in under a scheme that allows patients, in consultation with their doctors or dentists, to obtain products not yet approved for use here.

The TGA did not know if all the Australian doctors and dentists had gone ahead with treatments using the US-made product AlloDerm  used as an agent in plastic and reconstructive surgery. The TGA said it would be up to individual doctors to decide if their patients needed blood tests to detect possible infections.

This contradicts US Food and Drug Administration recommendations that anyone who received the stolen tissue be tested for HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis.

The US watchdog determined that, in some instances, blood samples designed to ensure the tissue was disease-free had come from the wrong people.

In the US, recycling dead humans has become a billion-dollar business, according to documents submitted to regulatory authorities.

Hundreds of products derived from dead humans are now available. Gels made from human skin are injected to smooth wrinkles, puff up lips or even fatten penises.

An ounce of bone putty, used in spinal surgery, can sell for more than an ounce of gold. Skin, tendons, heart valves and veins and corneas are listed for sale at thousands of dollars.

AlloDerm is manufactured by LifeCell Corporation of Branchburg, New Jersey, one of five companies that innocently received the stolen parts.

LifeCell, co-founded by an Australian researcher Stephen Livesey, has strong links to the taxpayer-funded Australian Stem Cell Centre in Melbourne, which innocently received at least three lots of product manufactured from the stolen tissue.

Dr Livesey is the centre's chief scientific officer. He also maintains links to his former company, LifeCell. He said the material sent to his centre was for research purposes only and it had not been used on patients.

"We have a licence agreement with LifeCell to use the material for research purposes and the material that was sent to us was specifically for that, for research purposes," he said.

"None of that material was for clinical use, and none of that material was implanted into people," Dr Livesey said.

When the stolen body parts scandal first broke in the US, the Australian watchdog said it had begun an investigation "immediately on receipt of US advice in October 2005" to see if any of the material had been imported.

In March, the agency stated it had conducted a thorough, nationwide check and found that none of the products had been imported into Australia.

But the TGA now admits that advice to the public was wrong. TGA experts had looked at the wrong company and had failed to even check the FDA website, which lists product lots sent to the US, Korea and Australia.

The TGA said yesterday that it had begun another, urgent investigation and had started contacting doctors.

AlloDerm is one of the LifeCell products recalled in the US. Dr Livesey said AlloDerm was never commercially distributed in Australia despite a LifeCell press release, dated August 15, 2000, that indicated that the product was to be distributed here.

He said the media release merely announced to the US stockmarket a distribution agreement with another US company.

The alleged desecration of bodies from funeral homes in Brooklyn, Rochester, New Jersey and Philadelphia is part of a continuing New York Police Department investigation that has scandalised America.

The police claim a former dentist and three associates secretly removed bones, skin, tendons and veins from corpses bound for cremation or burial. They then sold them through a US company called Biomedical Tissue Services.

In some cases, the bones were replaced with plastic pipes before the bodies were stitched up and returned to their families.

LifeCell and four other companies caught up in the scandal have stated that is unlikely that anyone who received the material was infected because of safety measures taken during the processing of the human tissue.

But lawyers representing victims in the US disagree.

"Potentially we know that AIDS and hepatitis can be transmitted. People must get a blood test," said, a lawyer representing some of the victims.


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