Two scandals over cadavers donated to medical schools have rocked US universities. The University of California at Los Angeles has stopped accepting corpses for its medical students and research pending the outcome of an investigation. It is alleged that two men, including the director of UCLA’s Willed Body Program, sold body parts to other research labs for their own profit. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, over the last five years 496 cadavers were illegally sold for a total of US$704,600. And Tulane University, in New Orleans, has admitted that some of its donated cadavers were blown up in Army land mine experiments. The university sold seven surplus cadavers to a New York-based distributor of corpses, which sold them on to the US Army to test protective footgear. Tulane sold the cadavers for less than US$1,000 each, but the distributor resold them to the Army for between $25,000 and $30,000.
The scandals highlight the high demand in the US for body parts for transplants, medical training and research. The American human tissue market is said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year and demand always outstrips supply. Technically it is illegal to sell body parts for transplants, but non-profit organisations charge hefty acquisition and handling fees. Bodies obtained for research or medical education can be sold. “It’s a wild, wild West out there in tissue land, with few sheriffs and a lot of shady characters meeting in the back rooms,” says bioethicist Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania.
respect for dead
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