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U.C.L.A. Halts Donations of Cadavers

Published: March 10, 2004

OS ANGELES, March 9 ? The University of California, Los Angeles, said Tuesday that it was suspending its cadaver donation program at least until completion of an investigation into accusations of trafficking in body parts.

The university's medical school will not accept new cadavers for its Willed Body Program but will allow students to continue to work on about two dozen corpses already in use, said Louis Marlin, a university lawyer. Mr. Marlin spoke outside a Los Angeles courtroom after a hearing on a lawsuit against U.C.L.A. by families of those who donated their bodies to the program.

Corpses stored in the medical school's freezer will remain there until the status of the program is settled, Mr. Marlin said.

"It was decided it would be in the best interests of the public, in the best interests of U.C.L.A. and in the best interests of the College of Medicine to suspend the Willed Body Program at this time," he said.

U.C.L.A. officials have accused a university employee and a man who they said acted as a middleman of running a scheme to sell body parts involving hundreds of donated cadavers.

The employee, Henry G. Reid, 54, of Anaheim, ran the medical school's cadaver research program from 1997 until he was suspended late last week. Mr. Reid was arrested Saturday and accused of grand theft. The other man, Ernest V. Nelson, 46, of Alta Loma, Calif., has been accused of purchasing bodies and body parts from Mr. Reid and reselling them. Both men are free on bond. They have not been formally charged.

Mr. Nelson's lawyer, Greg Hafif, said Mr. Reid sold Mr. Nelson nearly 500 cadavers from the program over the past six years. Mr. Nelson cut up the bodies with an electric saw, packaged the parts and resold them, Mr. Hafif said.

A lawyer for families who have filed the class-action claim against the cadaver program said they welcomed the university's decision to suspend it because, he said, it appeared that U.C.L.A. had, wittingly or unwittingly, been a supplier to a nationwide black market in body parts. The families had asked for a restraining order halting the program during the investigation.

"They recognized in light of our request that it would be impossible to continue the program," said the lawyer, Mike Arias, who represents scores of families. "One of the issues is how can they let the program continue when they've dismissed the personnel?"

Mr. Hafif said U.C.L.A. officials were fully aware of the transactions, for which his client was billed $1,400 a body, for a total of more than $700,000. He said only that the buyers were "medical institutions and research facilities of substantial caliber."

Mr. Hafif said that the body parts were supplied for legitimate medical research, adding that there was a robust market for "every single part of the body, from spleens to spines."

Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical and medical products company, acknowledged Tuesday that one of its subsidiaries had purchased human tissue from Mr. Nelson.

"One of our wholly owned business units, Mitek, contracted with Mr. Nelson in the 1990's for human tissue samples," Marc Monseau, a Johnson & Johnson spokesman, said in a statement. "Mitek did not knowingly receive samples that may have been obtained in an inappropriate way."

Mitek Worldwide, of Norwood, Mass., near Boston, makes devices for the treatment of soft-tissue injuries, Mr. Monseau said.

University officials have apologized to family members of those who donated their bodies for research and teaching. They said U.C.L.A. was the victim of a secret scheme by Mr. Reid and Mr. Nelson.

"U.C.L.A. has been the secondary victim of a crime," said Mr. Marlin, the university lawyer. "The primary victims are the families and the donors. They are our first concern, they are the people who were first injured and first harmed, but U.C.L.A. has been damaged also."

Karl T. Ross, acting chief of the university's Police Department, which is conducting the investigation, said more accusations might be made against the two men.

Joe Scott, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which likely would conduct any prosecution of the men, said that the university had not provided details of the accusations and that no formal charges had been filed.

Mr. Reid did not return several telephone calls on Tuesday.

Mr. Hafif, Mr. Nelson's lawyer, said his client operated under the assumption that Mr. Reid, the program's director, was authorized to sell him bodies no longer needed by the university.

"Mr. Nelson had every reason to believe what he was doing was on the up and up," Mr. Hafif said. "He would come in, cut the parts up in front of everyone, help medical students as they did autopsies, teach them how to cut, then pack the parts up and take them out the front door."

Fifteen months ago, U.C.L.A. officials halted transfers of cadavers and body parts to institutions or people not affiliated with the university. That ban exposed what Mr. Marlin called a "criminal enterprise" involving Mr. Reid and Mr. Nelson.

It is illegal to sell cadavers or body parts. But it is legal to charge "reasonable" fees for collecting, shipping, processing, marketing and implanting tissues from corpses. Tissue from one cadaver can be used in 50 to 100 different experiments or procedures, and a typical body can be worth more than $220,000, medical researchers say.

Charlie LeDuff and Sandra Blakeslee contributed reporting for this article.

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