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Inside the world of for-profit human body donation

The KING 5 Investigators have revealed the dark side of the body trade, but one “whole body donation” firm wants to show that not all companies are the same.

PHOENIX — Warning: This story contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.

There’s a room inside the building that houses Research for Life that might seem straight from a horror movie.

The “procurement room,” stocked with mallets, chisels, autopsy tables and bones saws, is where specially trained technicians dissect human bodies, following instructions on a “cut sheet.”

Research for Life owner Garland Shreves understands that it is a hard concept for the general public to accept. But it’s vitally important.

“That’s what whole body donation is doing – it’s helping people to have a better quality of life (and) live longer,” said Shreves, sitting in the building’s bio-skills lab where doctors learn new medical procedures using actual human body parts. “We have the medicine we do today because of donors. That’s a fact.”

After a series of stories uncovered abuses in the Pacific Northwest in the whole body donation trade, the KING 5 investigators requested interviews and tours from firms across the country.  Two local companies, MedCure in Portland and BioGift in Everett, declined that request. Only Research for Life in Phoenix agreed to allow KING 5’s camera inside.

“(I want to be) very transparent with you to let you see everything we do. Let you see how tissue is stored. Most tissue banks are afraid to do that,” Shreves said.

Non-transplant anatomical donation (NADO) firms are not the same as organizations that harvest organs and tissues for transplant into a living human. Organ transplant, the kind of donation that you sign up for on your driver’s license, is federally regulated. NADOs are not subject to federal laws, although some states have enacted their own legislation.

That results in variation in how companies across the country solicit donations, maintain medical standards and track the body parts they sell.

“Body brokers do not operate at this level. That’s just the bottom line,” Shreves said as he pointed to the medical precision and cleanliness of the operations at Research for Life.

Shreves detests the term “body broker” and said it should only be applied to the fly-by-night operators that pop up and cause most of the problems.

In October, the KING 5 investigators exposed an autopsy event in which paying customers watched the dissection of the cadaver of a 98-year old man. Spectators paid up to $500 a ticket.

A Las Vegas body broker, Med Ed Labs, said it was duped into providing the body to the show’s organizers.

RELATED: Manager of lab that sold body to autopsy event lost doctor's license for misconduct

Last month, KING 5 reported that several Washington state donors to former Seattle body broker Walter Mitchell had been identified through DNA. Mitchell pleaded “not guilty” in Arizona to dumping 29 body parts in the desert near Prescott.

Donors or their next-of-kin may sign up with Research for Life before they die. The company offers presentations and tours showing how the body will be used to further medical research and education.  The donor’s family receives a death certificate and cremated remains at the end of the process, free of charge.

“Here is a walk-in freezer where anatomical specimens are stored,” said Shreves as he stepped into an ice-cold room with bagged objects wrapped in blue medical gauze. Signs on the shelves revealed the contents: “brain whole,” “shoulder to finger-tip,” “head” and “hands.”

Shreves said a hand or foot, for example, might sell for anywhere between $200 to $400. He said dissecting the body is absolutely necessary to get the most research out of every donor.

“What if you were a neurosurgeon, and all you need is a human head to practice your skillset to become better, and you had to waste the entire body. That would be tragic,” said Shreves.

He says one body can be divided to use in six or seven different projects.

“This is the reality,” Shreves said. “If it makes you uncomfortable, then maybe being a donor isn't right for you.”

It’s Research for Life’s bio-skills lab that Shreves hopes will persuade potential donors. That’s the room where surgeons and doctors use human body parts to test new medical devices and learn new medical procedures.

“If we have the ability to help surgeons learn a new device that comes to market through this process, then we're helping to save lives. So that should never be lost on the public on how important a whole body donation is,” said Shreves.

The facility is spic and span, with employees dressed in medical scrubs using medical-grade tools, as opposed to body brokers that have been caught using chain saws to dissect bodies and throwing human remains into dumpsters.

The lack of federal laws requiring licensing and standards is the reason why unscrupulous operators infect the trade, according to Bryant Hightower, the past president of the National Funeral Directors Association.

“These people tell a good story and they’ve duped a lot of families across this country by pulling their heartstrings,” said Hightower.

Hightower said the organization’s 20,000 members have told him stories about body brokers returning sawdust to donors’ families instead of cremated remains, donors’ remains being lost through improper tracking and families being lied to about what the donation would be used for.

“Funeral homes were duped much like the families were,” said Hightower of their dealings with some body brokers.

The Funeral Directors Association pushed for HR 4062, a bill currently in the U.S. House of Representatives that would require NADOs to register with the federal government, create a “chain-of-custody” for each donated body part and meet other specified standards.

“Because there's a lack of federal regulation, once a problem crops up somewhere, these bad operators simply fold their tents and move across the state line and opened up shop again, in many times under a different name,” Hightower said.

The American Association of Tissue Banks, a nonprofit, accredits and inspects NADOs.

Research for Life is one of eight accredited NADOs in the U.S.

The pushback against more regulation comes from some of the NADOs themselves.

“This industry is already significantly and heavily regulated. And somebody would say, if that's the case, then how do you have bad actors? You have bad actors, because we're not holding these people accountable,” said Shreves.

Shreves argues that more prosecutors should bring fraud charges against body brokers who make misrepresentations to donors or abuse cadavers, as Mitchell, the former Seattle body broker, is accused of.

“Did you consent to having your human remains thrown out in the (desert)?” asked Shreves.  “We already have laws on the books. It’s called ‘fraud.’”

Interested in body donation?

The American Association of Tissue Banks warns there are many firms that accept whole body donations in the US. But only seven of them are accredited by the AATB.

This means that participating donation firms must: allow independent inspections of their facilities, maintain sufficient records and prove that they are providing a supply of safe, donated human tissue.

Find a list of accredited body donation companies here.


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