updated 2/4/2005 7:46:08 PM ET 2005-02-05T00:46:08

Shaken by scandals involving the black-market sale of body parts, University of California officials are considering inserting supermarket-style barcodes or radio frequency devices in cadavers to keep track of them.

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The high-tech fix is one of a number of reforms UC is proposing to reassure people that bodies donated to science will be used as intended and treated with respect.

“We want these to be programs that really do work so we can maintain the public trust and know that we are doing everything possible to maintain and respect the great donation that these gifts represent,” said Michael Drake, UC vice president for health affairs.

Every year, thousands of bodies are donated to U.S. tissue banks and medical schools. Skin, bone and other tissue are often used in transplants. New medical treatments and safety equipment such as bicycle helmets are tested on various body parts. And cadavers are used to teach medical students surgical skills and anatomy.

Underground trade
But there is also a lucrative underground trade in corpses and body parts, despite federal laws against the sale of organs and tissue.

Body part prices
“There’s more regulations that cover a shipment of oranges coming into California than there is a shipment of human knees that are going from a body parts broker in one state to Las Vegas,” said Dr. Todd Olson, director of anatomical donations at Albert Einstein Medical School of New York.

At UCLA, the Willed Body program was suspended by court order last spring after the director and another person were arrested in an investigation into the selling of body parts for profit. The case is still under investigation and no charges have been filed.

In 1996, donors’ families sued the university, charging that the program had illegally disposed of thousands of bodies by cremating them along with dead lab animals and fetuses and dumping the ashes in the trash.

In 1999, the director of the UC Irvine program was fired after being accused of selling spines to a Phoenix hospital. The university was also unable to account for hundreds of willed bodies. The director denied any wrongdoing and was never prosecuted.

After the latest scandal, some people who had agreed to leave their bodies to science withdrew their offers.

New reforms proposed
In response, UC has proposed a series of reforms, some of which are already in place. They include a better records system, electronic locks and surveillance cameras.

Officials are also considering putting barcodes or radio frequency devices in cadavers that could be read by someone walking past the body with a handheld device. Radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags already are used by cars passing through automated toll plazas. UC officials said that they are still working out the details but that any body parts that became separated from the corpse would probably be tagged, too.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said he has never heard of such devices being used to keep track of cadavers. He said a determined thief might be able to remove a barcode, and he warned that the new equipment has to be backed up by human oversight.

“Most of this illicit trade in body parts is done by bad guys,” he said. “Having the barcoded chips is great, but if you want to beat them you need to have someone come in occasionally and say, ‘I’m doing an audit.”’

The university’s Board of Regents is expected to review the plan this spring. Also, UC officials will decide in March whether to ask a judge overseeing lawsuits filed by donors’ relatives for permission to reopen UCLA’s 55-year-old willed-body program, which was getting about 175 donated bodies a year before it was suspended.

Mike Arias, a lawyer for family members who have sued UC, greeted the proposed reforms with “somewhat guarded optimism,” since UC had promised to create a model program after the mid-’90s problems. Still, Arias said he hopes the reform succeed and the UCLA program resumes, because it “serves too big of a public service.”

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