The Body Brokers — Part 3: Researchers

By Ronald Campbell,
William Heisel and Mark Katches
April 18, 2000

Rough research

Bodies donated to science usually end up as medical subjects, but some also are used in crash tests and other product-safety studies.

Donated human bodies are replacing crash-test dummies and animals in sometimes-bizarre research projects that are largely hidden from the public, an Orange County Register investigation has found. Like their counterparts in the body-parts industry, researchers at universities and in private business avoid telling families how their loved ones are being used. They fear donations would drop.

"There isn't a thing that should go on in these programs that is secret," said Don Cahill, past president of the American Association of Clinical Anatomists. "The donor population is altruistic for giving in the first place. That's why we should deal with them with honesty, dignity and forthrightness." "Instead," Cahill said, "researchers have taken this business underground."

At least 17,500 bodies are donated to science in the United States every year, according to a Register survey. These bodies are in addition to the 20,000 cadavers used each year by businesses to make products. Most of the bodies donated to science follow a traditional path: to medical schools, where students dissect them, or to medical conferences, where physicians practice their skills on them.

But each year, at least 4,000 bodies become the subjects of wide-ranging experiments, the Register found. Bodies are crashed to test vehicle air bags, heads are dropped to test helmets, and arms are dropped to test snowboard wrist braces. These experiments are seldom discussed publicly and almost never disclosed to would-be donors or their families. Sometimes researchers don't even tell families they are taking parts from their loved ones' bodies. Since 1990, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office has removed parts from hundreds of accident and homicide victims without consent. The coroner gave those parts to researchers. When some families found out, they felt violated and angry.

One of the researchers, Russell Sherwin of the University of Southern California, used to ask permission from donor families, he said. He stopped doing that because too many objected -- hampering his research into the prevalence of the lung disease emphysema. "My enemy is the public," Sherwin said, "and they are the ones I am serving."

Most researchers rely on donations. Willed-body programs based at medical schools collect about 15,000 bodies annually. Roughly one body in 10 donated to willed-body programs is used for research. Private agencies, such as the Maryland-based Anatomic Gift Foundation, supply an additional 2,500 cadavers a year to academic and commercial researchers. "There is almost no body part that is not in demand," said Gina Dunne Smith, professional-services director for the International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine, a cadaver supplier in Edison, N.J.

Employees at two universities allegedly sold donated bodies or body parts to researchers without authorization. University of California, Irvine, fired the director of its willed-body program, Christopher S. Brown, in September for selling seven donated spines to a Phoenix researcher. The Orange County District Attorney's Office is investigating. In Los Angeles County, prosecutors have filed theft and embezzlement charges against Philip Guyett, former manager of the willed-body program at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona. Guyett, who operated a private willed-body program on the side, allegedly sold a cadaver belonging to the university. He has pleaded not guilty.

Guyett told the Register that the demand for cadavers far outstripped his supply. "I would get calls saying 'We're having a workshop for podiatrists, and we need 70 feet specimens in two weeks. Can you provide us with that?,' and I would usually have to say 'no,' because I didn't have that many donors," Guyett said. "There is a legitimate demand, not some mad scientist out there trying to build a monster, but that kind of demand brings out the worst in people," Guyett said.

Although no reliable statistics are kept, most cadaver research appears to take place at universities. It is funded by the federal government, as well as automakers, pharmaceutical companies and consumer-product manufacturers. Physicians and other researchers use dead bodies or parts of them in situations where it would be impossible or unethical to use living people. Increasingly, they also are using dead humans in place of live animals, because of the public outcry against animal testing.

Potential donors or their families sign a form earmarking the body for research. They generally aren't told what that means. That is partly because the potential uses are so vast and because pieces from an individual body may be parceled out months after death. "Each organ may go to 20 different researchers," Smith said. But researchers also want to avoid sharing unpleasant details with donors or their families.

One of the biggest fields for whole-cadaver research is automotive safety. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, whose motto is "People Saving People," funds crash-test studies involving about 70 cadavers a year at seven universities. "If you want safe cars you need good dummies, and if you want good dummies you have to test on cadavers," said Albert King of Wayne State University in Michigan, who has conducted crash tests on cadavers since 1966.

One of the schools that receives federal funds for cadaver tests is Ohio State University. It uses a few of the 150 donated cadavers it gets every year in crash tests. "It's not something we advertise," said Margaret Hines, director of the Ohio State trauma research program.

Wayne State is more open with potential donors. A brochure it supplies to donors and their families lists "safety testing" as a potential use of donated bodies, said Barbara Russo, director of the school's willed-body program. "If someone has questions, we will go into detail," she said. "We don't hide that." She said the school's candor has not hurt donations. Wayne State gets about 175 cadavers a year and uses about 5 percent of them for research.

At Ohio State, Hines and her team dress the cadavers and strap them into car-like crash sleds. Then they slam, jerk and jolt the bodies, using sensors to determine where injuries occur. "The body is a complicated piece of machinery and difficult to replicate," Hines said. "Without these generous donations, we wouldn't be able to get accurate test readings about what happens in a car crash, and cars would be much more dangerous."

Automakers use cadaver tests to develop new safety features. The federal government uses them to set mandatory safety standards for all cars. For example, after dozens of small children were killed by deploying air bags three years ago, the federal government determined it could safely reduce the inflating pressure of the air bags by 20 percent to 35 percent. It based the new standard on crash tests involving 35 cadavers.

At Duke University, Barry Myers uses cadaver heads, necks and spines to study the body's reaction to falls and crashes. He repeatedly dropped 20 heads and necks a few inches to a few feet and measured the impact. He said his research has led to better bicycle helmets and safer cars. "Look at car roofs," Myers said. "There is a very slender liner on the roof. Wouldn't you want a big fat pad up there to protect the neck? Don't pads protect necks? No. They break necks."

Utah researchers in 1998 tested a wrist brace for snowboarders by repeatedly dropping 12 arms from six cadavers. Their conclusion: Wrist braces reduced the potential for injury from minor falls but not more-forceful collisions.

The University of Tennessee in Knoxville receives about 35 bodies a year for forensic research. Researchers have locked bodies in trunks, submerged them in water and left them lying in a field in various stages of decay to better understand crime scenes. The work has been widely publicized, and was featured in crime novelist Patricia Cornwell's book "The Body Farm," but the school doesn't tell donor families at the time of death how exactly the bodies will be used - unless they ask. "We don't want to impose on these families in their time of grief the thought of Aunt Sally out there decomposing on the ground," said Dr. Lee Meadows Jantz, a Tennessee researcher.

Researchers say their work on cadavers will save lives. They say they don't tell donors or their families exactly what they're doing because the truth would decrease donations. "No two patients are going to agree on what kind of research is good and what kind of research is bad," said Wayne Grody, a pathologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has done AIDS research on donated hearts. "The greater good of humanity is best served by allowing research to go on unimpeded." "Some people view these specimens as if they have a human sensitivity, almost as if we need to ask permission of them before we do any research," Grody added.

The L.A County Coroner's Office believes so strongly in research that it has given organs and other body parts to researchers without families' consent at least 353 times since 1990, according to records reviewed by the Register. "We do not need consent. That's the law," coroner spokesman Scott Carrier said.

California law does allow the coroner to remove tissues for scientific research. But the law also requires the coroner to "make diligent efforts" to find survivors and get their consent. Carrier said the coroner doesn't believe that provision applies to tissue for research. Orange County Chief Deputy Coroner Jacque Berndt said her department does not take body parts without consent.

Some of the families of people whose body parts the Los Angeles coroner removed believe their rights were trampled. In 1996, the coroner removed the left lung from 17-year-old shooting victim Justin Hartt and gave it to Sherwin, the USC researcher, for his emphysema project. Neither the coroner nor Sherwin told Hartt's parents -- devout Jehovah's Witnesses who object on religious grounds to donating body parts. "That, to me, is sacrilegious," said Justin's father, Merlin Hartt. "If they asked me I would have said 'no.' But no one ever asked."

In 1996, the Los Angeles coroner removed one lung from 23-year-old Timothy Flanagan of Long Beach, who had been shot and killed while washing his 1984 Pontiac LeMans. The coroner gave the lung to Sherwin at USC. Neither the coroner nor Sherwin told Norma Taylor, who had raised Flanagan since boyhood, that they had taken her nephew's lung. "I'm sure this is important research, but it's important to show some respect for the family, too," Taylor said. "I can't believe this isn't against the law."

When Jason Williams was killed outside his grandmother's front door in south Los Angeles two years ago, the coroner took part of his esophagus without consent. "What they did is like stealing," said his grandmother, Laura Edwards.

"I just don't think the families truly understand what we're doing and what the benefits are," said Joseph Muto, chairman of the coroner's research committee. "Each research project potentially has life-saving capabilities."

Even if it is legal, harvesting body parts without consent might harm scientific research in the long run, said bioethicist Stuart Youngner of Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University. "It rekindles the old body-snatching stuff that went on a couple centuries ago," Youngner said. "It's going to turn people off."

*Register staff writers Susan Kelleher and Liz Kowalczyk contributed to this report.

*Copyright 1999 The Orange County Register

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