By Julie Burger
On May 14, 2009, a jury convicted Ernest Nelson of conspiring to commit grand theft, embezzlement and tax evasion for selling body parts that had been donated to UCLA's medical school to private medical research companies and pharmaceutical companies. Nelson's alleged co-conspirator in the case, Henry Reid, the former director of UCLA's willed-body program, is currently serving four years after pleading guilty to conspiring to commit the theft.
According to allegations, Reid provided portions of cadavers to Nelson who then sold them to companies for research. But it wasn't the mere exchange of money for body parts that was the problem. Prosecutors stated in 2009 that the defendants' plan unraveled because they had failed to properly fill out paperwork showing that the bodily tissue had been tested and was disease free, raising the suspicions of a state health investigator. They stated that the companies that provided $1.5 million for the body parts over the course of four years had "legally paid" for the tissue. Nelson's defense was that UCLA had authorized the sales, but that Henry Reid, the director, had not forwarded the money to the university.
UCLA claims that the situation was "hidden" from them. It continues to defend itself from lawsuits brought by families of the deceased whose parts were sold. This is not the first time UCLA has come under criticism for its oversight of its willed body program. In the mid-90's the school was accused of disposing human ashes in garbage dumps, resulting with a settlement in 1994 to overhaul its program. Previously, its sister school, UC Irvine, came under fire when the director of its willed body program was accused of selling body parts to a hospital in another state.
The cases raise questions: Is it illegal to commercialize body tissue? What constitutes commercialization as opposed to a processing fee? What was promised to the people donating their body parts? Did they know their torsos and heads would be transferred to private companies for over a million dollars? To say that more oversight is needed is obvious. What else is needed is transparency in the body/organ donation system, and knowledge about how pharmaceutical and biotech companies receive tissue for research.